Living the American Dream in the West Bank
Hanging Out with Israel’s Illegal Homesteaders
In many people’s imaginations, Jewish settlers in the West Bank are bearded, M16-toting fundamentalists living in hilltop trailers overrun with barefoot women and children. And sometimes that’s the reality—but not always.
In 2010, 269 Jews moved from America to West Bank settlements, many of which are marketed as “bedroom communities” to families and white-collar professionals in the US. The migration is called “making aliyah,” which translates roughly from the Hebrew as “movin’ on up.” Never mind that it’s a violation of the Geneva Conventions for Israel, as an occupying power, to install civilians in the West Bank, one fifth of which, according to the Oslo Accords, falls under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.
To encourage Jews to illegally settle there, the Israeli government subsidizes home purchases and offers reduced rates for leasing land, in addition to the perks all new Israeli citizens get such as free health care, upward of a 90 percent reduction in property taxes, tuition waivers for earning advanced degrees, and a payment of about $14,000 spending money for a family of five. The first installment is paid on arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport—in cash.
Prospective immigrants shop for homes at frequent government-sponsored events, like the Israeli real-estate exhibition that recently took place in New York, or the “aliyah expo” I attended a few years ago in the Times Square Marriott. Neatly bearded and wearing a knitted yarmulke, Shmuel Aron of Brooklyn Realty sat in front of a particleboard wall affixed with photos of sleek high-rises in Har Homa, which was billed as an Israeli town but is in fact a settlement located squarely within Palestine, near Bethlehem. Simply put, the Israeli government carves up the West Bank, builds illegal homes in Palestinian territory, calls it Israeli territory, and then invites Jews to move in. Booths draped in fabric offered information packets on floor plans, as well as the many government subsidies that accompany aliyah. After browsing the offerings, I spotted a bowlful of fortune cookies. “Israel is for tough cookies,” my fortune read.
While Israel encourages Jews from around the world to move anywhere in the Holy Land, Palestinians aren’t so lucky. During the 1948 War, when Israel declared statehood, Zionist forces expelled 700,000 Palestinians from what is now Israel. To Israelis, this was the War of Independence, and to Palestinians, it was the Nakba—the catastrophe. To this day, the Israeli government prevents these exiled Palestinian refugees and their descendants from returning to their homes.
The armistice lines drawn in 1949 after the war form Israel’s internationally recognized boundary, the infamous Green Line, which demarcates the West Bank from Israel. The building of Israeli settlements in Palestine began in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank in the Six-Day War. From the start, the goal of the settlement project was to establish “facts on the ground”—to erase the Green Line. There are now more than 500,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank who live there in violation of international law. And sometimes there are rare Israeli casualties like in May of 2011 when a man sneaked into the Israeli settlement Itamar and knifed a whole family, killing three kids.
While 1967 marked the beginning of the establishment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in the 1980s the government developed a scheme to shift its settlement project into hyperdrive by marketing the developments to Israelis as “suburbs” of major metropolitan areas like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Promises of generous government subsidies attracted droves of suburbanites from Israel proper and Jewish immigrants from around the world—people who crossed the Green Line into the West Bank less for ideological reasons and more for the good deals. The government seized more and more land from Palestinians to construct settler-only highways, connecting the homesteaders to cities on the Israeli side of the Green Line.
“The subsidized suburbia idea is what really changed the demography of the West Bank,” Neve Gordon, author of Israel’s Occupation, told me. In the past 30 years, there has been a 1,600 percent increase in the West Bank Israeli-settler population. The more Israelis over the Green Line, the thinking goes, the more entrenched the occupation will become. Settlers are used as pawns in a game of territorial acquisition and control.
Case in point: On November 30, 2012, the day after the United Nations voted to give Palestinians a status upgrade from “observer entity” to “non-member state,” the Israeli government made an announcement: 3,000 new settlement homes would be going up in the West Bank. If they hadn’t already made it clear while gobbling up land for four decades, it was now a certainty that the Israeli government didn’t intend to leave much of the West Bank for a Palestinian state.