BOOK REVIEW: Lords of the Land – The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories

BOOK REVIEW:  Lords of the Land – The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories

BOOK REVIEW:  Lords of the Land – The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007.  Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal.  Nation Books, New York, 2007.

In a previous article I entered into a direct discussion on possible outcomes for the Israel-Palestine question based on a CBC radio interview between two different proponents and the most recent books they had written.  Within that, while I was not fully receptive of Akiva Eldar’s arguments for the two-state outcome, I also mentioned his most recent book, co-authored with Idith Zertal, identifying it as an excellent political read concerning the issue of settlements in the occupied territories.  To do justice to this book, as it is an important view of the settlement process from within the Israeli political structure and from within the settlers themselves, I feel it needs more emphasis as a positive work in relationship to the historiography of Israel-Palestine. 

First published in Palestine Chronicle, November 06, 2007

The title itself requires a second look, as the ‘war’ that is discussed here is not the war between the Palestinians and the Jewish settlers, although that is by necessity part of the whole, but is the war between the settlers and the Israeli government itself.  Again that needs a qualifier as that ‘war’ was, and is, a war of words and ideology.  It is a war of words based on ideas for internal motivation and support for the settlers, on ideas for public consumption, ideas for mass media presentation in the west, and ideas for moments of opportunistic convenience wherein today’s hero becomes tomorrows enemy.  The war of words extends into the physical war of the occupation of Palestine, within the context of the judicial system, politics, and military ‘governance’, all enabling factors for the settlers to succeed.

Settlement has always been a Zionist ideology from the moment the movement was founded, seen as a means of incrementally changing the cultural geography into the ‘fact’ of Jewish predominance.  It was practiced well before the UN partition of 1947 and the nakba of 1948.  Between the nakba and the Six Day War in 1967, settlement and dislocation remained internal to the conquered territories within the Green Line, the armistice line between Israel and the Arab countries.  Eldar and Zertal’s story begins in 1967 when the whole of Israel is occupied and the Westbank and Gaza strip become part of the greater Israel. 

After 1967, the first settlers retained the idea of establishing settlements scattered between Palestinian population centres to establish facts on the ground that would prevent a contiguous Palestinian state.  With a military government established in the occupied territories, the settlers manoeuvred their settlements into permanence by arguments that avoided the civilian settlement issue and based them ideologically as “work camps”.  The arguments contained elements of security of Israel proper, but also turned on arguments of security for the settlers themselves after they had insinuated themselves into Palestinian demographic areas. The first section, “Blindness”, examines the initial settlements and the political fights that occurred between the Israeli government, the settlers, and increasingly, the military ‘government’.  By 1977, there was a “new political force” with “innovative modes of action and effectiveness” leading to the “confiscation” of the settler ideology “by the new alliance of the Revisionists and the national-religious.”

The second section, “Bad Faith” follows on with the political-geographical story.  Among the topics discussed are the Jewish terrorist organizations formed in the Westbank and its correlate, racism.  The “pervasive illegality of the settlement project” supported by the “fervent belief in the approaching Redemption” made violence directed at the Palestinians a “negligible detail.” Other issues are addressed up to 1992:  court favouritism, the build-up of land banks and infrastructure, the huge cost of the settlements creating a deficit budget – the latter eventually aided by $10 billion in loan guarantees to absorb immigration from the former Soviet Union.

“Fire on the Hillsides” develops the political story further until the end of Camp David, a period that saw the rise of Palestinian terrorism and the initial ‘success’ then failure of the Oslo Accords.  Of the accords, Hana Ashrawi, a Palestinian professor, “the woman who became the outstanding voice of the Palestinian resistance” said, “We know that they will exploit their advantage as occupiers to the fullest and by the time we arrive at discussing a final-status agreement Israel will have already irreversibly changed the reality on the ground.” Along the way “America lost the last drop of its pretensions to being a fair mediator.”

The above two sections cover well known territory while at the same time providing new information and new insights into the nature of the settlement process.  It was the section on the “Soldiers of the Messiah,” the Gush Emunim, that for me provided a much clearer perspective on the faith, mythology, and ideology of the settlers themselves. 

The Gush beliefs are based on the ideas of Abraham Isaac Kook, who eulogized Theodor Herzl as “a Messiah ben Joseph, the figure who is associated with “material” messianism…[and] the final battle that is to take place on the eve of the new redemption.” His son, Zvi Yehudah Kook, carried a “radical and more simplistic message and his zealous and practical students achieved unprecedented educational and political power.” The younger Kook blurred “the difference between the theological and the political, creating a total overlap of the two.” The result was a state that “underwent a process of mystification and sanctification,” the state became a “divine ideal”. 

The Gush practiced clever politics, allying with whomever supported their cause, disposing of them when they became inconvenient, or more fully enemies (Yitzhak Rabin), but never themselves forming a political party.  Ethnic cleansing was supported and the military became allies, although again those within the military who fell into displeasure were “disposable.” Civil rights were seen as “alien, democratic” and democracy itself “did not have a good reputation in Gush Emunim.” The authors end the discussion of the Gush wondering if this opportunistic group, messianic and realistic at the same time, “has defined Israeli society as a whole.”

The idea of the occupier as victim of terror and violence is presented in “A Moveable Death”, where the idea of the sanctification of the land with the blood of the victims becomes a strong religious factor for the settlements.  Crime, as perpetrated against the Palestinians, became sanctified.  Along with this sanctification of death, military “Complicity” develops such that “Security and settlement became a single ethos….that the settlements were a strategic asset of the first order.” The “ritualized” activities between the military occupation, politicians, and the settlers allowed the continuation of the settlement activities within occupied Palestine, the posturing “characterized army-settler relations for more than thirty years, up to the most recent events in Gaza and Amona.”

It has the appearance of a stage play, with the settlers demanding security, the army pretending to uproot “illegal” settlements (the very definition of which provided “legality” to the others), all the while building more settlements, more security roads, resulting in the “annexation for security reasons of thousands of dunams of Palestinian lands for purposes of expanding the area of the settlements.” For the settlers it was not annexation “but rather the restoration of lost lands to their legal owners from the dawn of time.” The arguments turned in circles, circles drawn around the Palestinian population, breaking their settlements into cantons.

This is all done “legally” as the complicity of the courts is discussed in “Everything is Legal in the Land of Israel”.  Israel imposed its judicial authority on the occupied lands, which “in effect annexed the territories.” Conversely, the Palestinians who had no recourse but to use this system were then trapped into what was “tantamount to recognition of Israel’s sovereignty.” The judicial discussion shows the convoluted and often irrational reasoning of the Israeli judiciary as it supports the army and the settlers in their conquest of the territories.  The judiciary created a “necessary, constitutive fiction of the general law” that they were “somewhere far above the public sphere….sitting in the most exalted public place” giving them “an all-encompassing gaze, the total objectivity and authority to interpret history, Zionism, the State of Israel, and its security needs.” As is common knowledge, this led to full violations of the Geneva Conventions, the destruction of property and civil rights, and for this work, ended with the declaration by the International Court of Justice of the illegality of the ‘wall/security fence’. 

The final section of the work, “Pace of Apocalypse” examines the role of Ariel Sharon, a view that could be summarized more as “what I am saying by no means matches what I am doing.” The picture is that of a rather violent cynical personality who is devoted to the cause of ethnic cleansing, in part by violent military actions, but also as the wily political strategist able to use creeping incremental settlement activities to further his aims.  As with other intelligently written works, the authors present Sharon’s Gaza disengagement as simply a means of buying endless time to allow more settlement to proceed, leaving Gaza with “scorched earth, devastated services, and people with neither a present nor a future.” Similarly Sharon is discussed as the originator of the use of the term “bantustan” to describe his reality of the Palestinian state.

The final position of the work is that the settlements are the main cause of Israel’s problems and their continued support will continue to aggravate problems into the unknown future. This of course is reading the scene from the Israeli perspective, and Eldar and Zertal provide the reader with many convincing instances and ideas to support their arguments.  Obviously the occupation and the settlements are fully intertwined.  This view of the “war” between the settlers and the Israeli establishment in all its manifestations – the military, judicial, political, religious, media – is strongly indicative of the illegality of the settlements and the violent manner in which they have and are proceeding.  Lords of the Land is a strong political and ethnographic history of the Israeli-Palestine situation, providing new nuances to the revived history of Israel’s occupation and illegal settlement activities in the Westbank and Gaza, a valuable addition to a bookshelf.

Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles.  His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government.