05/08/2013 06:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Settlements in the West Bank, from an Israeli Point of View

I am embarking on the challenge of making two TV shows: one on Israel and one on Palestine. My challenge is to do it in a way that partisans in the vitriolic debate realize that there's nothing wrong with understanding better the perspective of the side they oppose. In fact, I believe that if peace is ever to be found, it will come when empathy goes both ways.

I'm impressed by the harshness of many comments here as I've simply shared, so far, what I learned from Israelis in the country they consider their homeland. I'll be in Palestine next week and sharing that perspective. I know what it's like to be committed to a political viewpoint to the degree that I shut down any attempt to help me better understand what I oppose. Guns, drug policy, economic justice issues, abortion: These are all issues on which good people can be diametrically opposed. And so, certainly, is the issue of Jews and Palestinians.

As long as I've been politically active (since the American invasion of Grenada), I've been impressed by how land issues are so fundamental to peace with justice. And I've believed that peace without justice is not peace at all. It seems to me, land is what the struggles in the Holy Land are all about.

Israeli settlements generally take the high ground in Palestinian territory.

After the tumult of the past 65 years, a political border divides Israel and Palestine. It is drawn in a way that favors Israel but gives Palestinians enough land to build an independent state. Israel has steadily encroached upon Palestinian territory by building hilltop settlements in the West Bank. It has built enough settlements there to make the option of creating two states (a Jewish Israel with a viable and potentially satisfied Palestine) nearly impossible. When the two-state option is no longer possible, the only option will be the one-state option, and with that Israel has a choice: one pluralistic state or one Jewish state. If Israel insists on one Jewish state (rather than a secular Jewish/Muslim state or two separate states, allowing for the creation of a truly independent Palestine), I believe Israel will have forced itself into an ugly and undesirable corner. Israel will ultimately have no option but to become what Jewish Israelis don't want to be in order to simply be. Here's what I learned about the settlements from the Israeli perspective.

Ancient Jewish rebels hid what came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls in about A.D. 70 while en route to their dramatic last stand against the Romans, which ended in the Jews' mass suicide and the beginning of the second Diaspora. The Jewish people scattered through the world and the Diaspora lasted nearly 2,000 years -- until 1947 when (in the wake of the horrific Holocaust) the United Nations adopted a plan for the creation of a Jewish state. Those sacred scrolls, which were discovered that same year, 1947, had remained hidden for the entire Diaspora. Notably, most of the scrolls were found in the West Bank, and so legally the Palestinians have a claim to them -- which just further underscores the complexity of this region.

There are Jews who don't concern themselves about Israel at all. There are Jews who think the state of Israel is a terrible, even un-Jewish idea. And there are Jews who believe that their people should live together in a single homeland. These Jews are Zionists. Zionists built Israel.

Imagine a people, maintaining their culture and traditions for 2,000 years without a homeland. Imagine them remembering the holy temple destroyed by the Roman Empire and that epic last stand ending in mass suicide on the fortified hilltop of Masada. Imagine a generation of people whose parents were killed in the Holocaust and who, with a love of their heritage, found themselves in the position to retake what they believed to be their homeland. A phrase among these Zionists is "Masada shall never fall again." That shows a determination to never come to such a point of despair as that faced by the Jews who died there in A.D. 70.

From 1947 until 1967, when Israel routed its Arab neighbors in the Six-Day War, Israel lived with the military installations of its enemies on the high ground all around. They were able and willing to rain rockets down on the Israelis at will. In the spirit of "Masada shall never fall again," Israel is hell-bent on retaking the high ground and establishing itself there in an irreversible way.

The settlements Israel has built over the past years are huge, well-funded, government-subsidized, fortified hilltop cities that creep into the Palestinian Territories -- and certainly establish the high ground. Israel justifies many of its land grabs as creating a needed buffer zone (an action they can defend by simply referring to their recent history). They say that according to international law, if land is used to attack a nation, that nation has the legal right to both occupy and settle that land for its own defense. And they're doing that now with a vengeance.

Israeli settlements are like planned and gated Jewish communities. The growth of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has embittered Palestinians as much as terrorism embittered Israelis. With Israeli government subsidies, it's easier for many Israeli families to live beyond the country's border than within it.

There are hundreds of thousands of settlers. My guide, Benjamin, lived for two years in a settlement. While not convenient for him, he moved to it after a settler was killed there by a Palestinian, in order to show solidarity with that community. Other settlers are attracted by fine new housing and government subsidies, which make raising their families much easier. Some like the serenity -- being away from the big-city rat race. And most appreciate the comfort of knowing their children will be raised with other friends and families who have similar Jewish values. Israel claims that the settlements are not in the valleys but on the hilltops -- which they say are unused by the Palestinians anyway. In regard to its policy on settlements, it seems Israel doesn't ask permission or wait for anyone's approval. They've got a mission and they make it happen.

There are legal settlements organized and built by the Israeli government. And there are illegal settlements built against the government's public wishes -- but that ultimately become accepted and rarely stopped by the government. Hilltop settlements are built within certain boundaries in an attempt to minimize trouble with Palestinians. But they invariably grow in size, which is justified by a belief that it's only natural for these communities to grow organically.

A more extreme position held by many conservative Jews as well as conservative Christians is that the presence of Palestinians in the West Bank impedes God's will. Therefore, the settlements are God's will and opposing them is the work of the devil.

By the way, as a travel writer, there is the interesting issue of what to call the land of the Palestinians. Mainstream guidebooks, for instance, barely acknowledge the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories. More independent, non-corporate guidebooks will actually refer to the area as Palestine. I find an interesting spectrum of political correctness when it comes to the name: On the far right the disputed land is Judea and Samaria (land promised to the Jews in the sacred texts). Less conservative but still politically correct from an Israeli perspective is "Occupied Territories." I find "West Bank" and "Palestinian Territories" reasonably middle ground for both sides, and the most progressive name would be to call the area Palestine -- which implies the ultimate legitimacy of an independent Palestinian state. Based on the United Nations decision last November to recognize Palestine as a "non-member observer state," Google has decided to go with the term Palestine, and I will too.


Israel is determined to fight what it considers terror in the streets. I was told, "Sometimes we know who the next suicide bomber is before even he does." From 2000 to 2005, the Second Intifada brought a rash of bloody terrorist attacks in Israel. In response, Israel began building a nearly 500-mile-long wall -- which it calls the "Security Barrier," "Anti-Terrorism Barrier," or "Security Fence" -- in the West Bank. They justify this by saying that in the decade before it was built, over a thousand Israelis were killed by terrorists. Since its construction, there have been almost no deaths due to terrorist attacks. While it's called a wall, over 90 percent of it is a fence. The actual walled part is generally limited to highly populated areas like Palestinian towns and cities. I noticed that the Israeli side of the wall was nicely designed with landscaping and fine rockery work, but the side facing Palestinian communities was rough concrete -- now decorated with gritty political art. While insulting and humiliating to Palestinians, Israelis believe the wall, along with the many police checkpoints associated with it, has thwarted thousands of terrorist acts.

Crossing from the Israeli to Palestinian side, you'll find the wall decorated with political art.