With Orwell to the West Bank

In early February hundreds of Israeli police officers battled on the West Bank with hundreds of determined young protesters armed with stones. Sixteen police officers were injured in clashes with the demonstrators, who had come to prevent the police and army from completing their task: the evacuation of Amona, a so-called “outpost” on the Palestinian West Bank.

An “outpost” is an Israeli settlement built without authorization from the Israeli authorities. The demolition of Amona was ordered initially by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1997, but the battle between the legal system and the religious nationalist settlers – and the politicians who protect them – has lasted much longer.

It was back in 1978 that the settler movement first encountered opposition in the Israeli Supreme Court. Together with the then minister of agriculture, Ariel Sharon, settlers from the Gush Emumin(Block of the Faithful) – a group that believed the 1967 Six Day War was a “miracle” and the first step on the road to eternal salvation – found a plot of land on the West Bank on which to build a new settlement, called Elon Moreh. The plot they had decided on was in the midst of a densely populated Palestinian area and was partly owned by Palestinians living in the village of Rujeb. But such minor details could not be allowed stand in the way of God’s earthly servants.

The Palestinian landowners, however, took their case to the Israeli Supreme Court. There they challenged the state’s right to expropriate their privately-owned land for the purposes of building civilian settlements. And this time round the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Palestinian plaintiffs. In its judgment, the court stated that although the land had been promised to the people of Israel by God, this did not give the state the right to expropriate private land. In his book The Settlers, Gadi Taub writes that the Elon Morheh judgment was a signal from the Court that the secular law superseded religion in the Jewish state. State sovereignty trumped eternal salvation. The court ordered the immediate evacuation of the settlement.

Fast-forward nearly 30 years, until the evacuation of Amona this February. Like Elon Moreh, Amona was also built on privately-owned Palestinian land. In the Amona case, the Supreme Court’s order to evacuate has been postponed several times, triggering a political drama in Israel. Right-wing politicians, most of them government ministers, vie for the settlers’ support. Education minister Naftali Bennett speaks in caps lock, making that case for the Amona settlers to be compensated and relocated (at the government’s expense) to another area on the West Bank, which he wants Israel to annex sooner or later in any event. It is worth emphasizing that what Bennett is advocating is the payment of compensation to people who for many years have flagrantly breached Israeli law. In other words, the United States under President Trump is not the only place where the rule of law is currently being put to the test.

Amona has now been evacuated, but not without physical battles between radical settlers and the Israeli police. At the same time, Israeli politicians have recently passed legislation – the so-called “regulation law” – that would permit the building of settlements even on privately-owned Palestinian land. According to the Israeli organization Peace Now, this would result in as many as 55 illegal outposts being redefined as government-authorized “legal” settlements. But talking about “legal” settlements is rather like booking a trip to the West Bank with George Orwell Tours: according to international law, all civilian settlements in Palestinian territory are illegal.

The new law is an attempt to overturn the Elon Moreh judgment of 1978. The passing of the law is seen as a significant victory for the settlers. At home, the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu will want a piece of the credit for this. At the moment Netanyahu is under significant political pressure, among other things because of the ongoing criminal investigation of alleged corruption.

Netanyahu knows very well that the voters whom Bennett is courting with his talk about annexation are the very same voters that Netanyahu needs in order to hold onto power in Israel. For the same reason, Netanyahu has announced his own initiative to establish a completely new settlement on the West Bank for the Amona evacuees. Over the years, several Israeli outposts have gained retrospective recognition as settlements by the authorities, but if Netanyahu keeps his promise to the settlers, this will be the first new Israeli settlement to be established for more than 20 years.

Netanyahu’s promise provoked reactions worldwide. Even the Trump administration asked Israel to exercise restraint on the issue of settlements. In the breathless 24/7 news cycle, this was interpreted rapidly as a “harder” line from Trump on Israel. Allowing a little breather and actually reading the entire White House statement, however, quickly reveals that what the administration was actually saying, was that it doesn’t see settlements as an impediment to peace (unlike the rest of the world): it simply believes that settlements “may not be helpful” in achieving that goal. You need to have travelled far into Orwell’s world to conclude that this signals a harder line. The only possible reason why Israeli right-wingers are not shouting with jubilation at this statement must be that their expectations of support from Trump were already sky-high. The year is 2017. Now the only thing we lack must be a “Minister of Peace”, responsible for the building of settlements.

Then Netanyahu travelled to Washington D.C., for the first consultations with the new Trump-administration. For those who thought Trump’s policy has been somewhat challenging to decipher, the Netanyahu-Trump press conference did nothing to make things clearer. One state, two states – whatever, was Trump’s input, clearly revealing once again that he has practically no knowledge about this issue.

In my opinion, though, the biggest story of the Netanyahu-Trump press conference was not what was said about the two state solution or the settlements, but rather Trump’s reply to a question on the spike in anti-Semitism in the US, after his election win. That Trump went into a rather absurd comment on the scale of his electoral win, seems to be within the parameters of what we have to expect from this new president. But for Netanyahu, the leader of the only Jewish nation in the world, not to follow up and clearly express worry about the administration’s weak handling of this issue, is more of a mind boggle. Indeed, one could make the case that by doing so little to address the issue, Netanyahu signals a willingness to play with very high stakes, in fact with the safety of the American Jewry, in order to secure a good standing with Trump and his team. In the long run, this would be harmful not only to US-Israeli relations, but to Israel’s relationship with the Jewish diaspora – and not least, to the safety of the American Jewish community. But that’s another story, and one where Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is a better literary companion than Orwell’s 1984.

This post was first published in Norwegian in Dagsavisen on 7 February 2017 as Med Orwell til Vestbredden“ and has been since updated. Translation from Norwegian was done by Fidotext. This post also appeared on the PRIO blog.