THE BLOG
02/01/2016 11:55 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2017

"The Settlers": Unsettling!

Writer/Director Shimon Dotan's new film "The Settlers" is a compelling, must see, tour de force outline of the Israeli Settlement issue fueling the last 50 years of Middle East conflicts.

According to Israel's Foreign Ministry legal advisors, settlements in areas held by Israel since the 1967 war which are beyond the country's actual borders, contravenes the provisions of the Geneva Convention and international law. But that has not stopped the growth of illegal settlement.

Dotan is fair minded, careful to use the words and deeds of settlers and inhabitants to briskly walk viewers through the region's blood soaked, contentious history.

To hear from the Settlers, we are whisked along the Israeli-only roads, behind the protective walls and barbed wire to the heavily guarded enclaves sprouting non-contextual housing settlements with their jagged red roofs and white cinder blocks scarring the hillsides, replacing indigenous thatched huts and cottages, disrupting centuries old villages and olive orchards to surround Palestinian cities.

Settlers used a variety of ruses to commandeer land. Rabbi Moshe Levinger moved a settlement party into a Palestinian hotel claiming his group were Swiss tourists . . . and then refused to leave. Settlement founder Sarah Nachshan and husband moved on to contested land to begin an enormous family which now numbers ten children, a hundred grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.

Ultra conservative Rabbis Levinger and Tzvi Yehuda Kook and their followers refused to abide by the Israeli government's borders. Claiming that a greater Israeli was not bound by political borders, but by religious commandment, they pushed on to long held Palestinian lands. Movement co-founder Yehuda Etzion proclaims that Arabs who had lived on the land from time immemorial had to give up their rights, "renounce political aspirations." "He will be a guest in our midst, but will have no political rights."

Settlers tell us that God and the Bible have determined that Arabs have no right to any of the land. "Every person has a role" says leader Pinhasi Bar-On. "The people of Israel's role is to conquer the land. To bequeath it and to banish the non-Jews from it." More extreme settlers used racist logic to attack Palestinians and burn their homes.

At first, the Israeli government tried to limit settlements. But they saw the utility of armed security settlements particularly along the Jordan Valley and other areas where Palestinians had resisted occupation. These armed settlements were incorporated into the defense system. They served as a wedge for further settlements. Repeatedly settlers challenged the government's attempt to limit their encroachment on Arab land. Rabbi Hanan Porat spoke for the movement when he proclaimed: The government can't tell us what to do. Time after time, the government backed down, ultimately providing costly defense, support and infrastructure for settlement development.

When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was elected in 1992, he froze settlements. Rabin cited political, ethical and economic reasons to limit expansion. In 1993 Rabin engaged in the Oslo Accords peace talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The talks resulted in Israel's agreement not to build additional settlements. But after Rabin was assassinated by a right wing opponent, existing settlements continued to grow in size and number. Now some 400,000 settlers that have taken up residence in these contested areas, pushing up against some 2.7 million pre-existing Palestinians.

Arabs have pushed back in two waves of Intifada, using economic measures and violence. Israeli's have initiated and responded using military and vigilante reprisals.

For Israel, the Settlers question raises two existential issues. If a nation upholds laws based on people's ethnic origins and maintains an income disparity of 1:20 between Palestinians and Israelis, is it not an apartheid system, as researchers like Dror Etkes argues in the film. And if a nation allows a religious group to contravene it's laws threatening the majority of its population, is it still a democracy?

By concluding with these questions, Shimon Dotan's painstaking, thoughtful, comprehensive treatment of "The Settlers" raises the hope that politicians will be able to address these issues in as measured terms as he does. Shining light on the issues may lead to the path of solution.