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June 19, 2017 2:57 pm

Fact-Checking Claims About Israeli ‘Settlers’

avatar by Benjamin Slobodkin

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An Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A theme I keep coming across in mainstream media articles about Israeli-Palestinian relations is starting to bother me. Here’s a typical example:

Today there are more than 400,000 [Jews] living in [West Bank] towns, villages and settlements. Hundreds of thousands more reside in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians (and the U.S. government) regard as occupied land.

Nothing is going to lead Israel to evacuate this many citizens to make way for a Palestinian state. If the Palestinians can’t accept that, there is no two-state deal to be made.

That number — 400,000 — sounds like a lot of people. But this oft-cited statistic can be very misleading.

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I live in Modi’in Illit, which is 99% haredi. There’s an Arab village about 300 meters from my apartment. Any day of the week (except Shabbat, of course) Jews from Modi’in Illit can be found there — at their nursery, auto repair shops, ceramic fixture dealers, lighting fixture stores, etc. One of my kids once rode his bike there (despite the steep climb) to save a couple of shekels on a hookah pipe.

Are Jews afraid to go there? Some are, some aren’t. Since the economy of that Arab village is highly dependent on good relations with their Jewish neighbors — some residents come into Modi’in Illit to work, and a few have prospering businesses in the industrial area of Modi’in Illit — they keep the handful of potential young hotheads in check.

Modi’in Illit isn’t in the midst of Arab villages, but it straddles the Green Line. A substantial chunk of the land was acquired when local Arabs sold off disused olive groves. One-by-one, over many cups of strong coffee, they agreed to sell; what mattered to them was the price — and assurances that their neighbors would not find out that they had sold their land to Jews.

Do our two communities sound like a big wrench in the works of peace? Yet the 80,000 residents of Modi’in Illit are counted among that figure of 400,000 “settlers.” Another nearby haredi town, Beitar Illit, is treated similarly.

When I read about “Israeli settlers,” I picture diehard Zionists with long beards and knitted kippahs who speak in very harsh terms about Arabs; I think about racists, hilltop outposts, and those who don’t want any sort of peace with the Palestinians.

The reality is that about half of the “settlers” are haredim — ranging from tepid Zionists to various shades of anti-Zionist — and that a large segment are secular or national-religious Jews who are not gung-ho, but just want to live in an inexpensive bedroom community (e.g. Ariel) not too far from the Central Region. Do these folks pose such an impediment to peace?

A substantial percentage of the “settlers” counted in that 400,000 number live in what’s referred to as “east Jerusalem,” in large haredi neighborhoods such as Neve Yaakov, Ramat Eshkol, Ramat Shlomo, Ramot and Sanhedria. I can imagine why some people might consider a neighborhood like Har Homa contentious, but Ramot (42,000 people)? What’s the big deal? Gilo (27,000)? My wife grew up in Gilo. She’s forty-something now. She’d chuckle if I told her that she grew up as a settler.

There’s another thing about this 400,000 “settler problem” that bothers me even more: it’s really bigoted. Is it so horrible for Jews to live in an Arab area? How would people react if residents of a predominantly Arab neighborhood in New York started demanding that the Jewish minority pull out — down to every last Jew? Why is it a given that Arabs cannot be expected to tolerate a Jewish presence in their midst?

To me, that doesn’t sound like much of a way to build a lasting peace.

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