A HEALTHY OBSESSION
Oded Naaman and Mikhael Manekin

In "The Settlement Obsession" (July/ August 2011), Elliott Abrams argues: 

In the end, Israel will withdraw from most of the West Bank and remain only in the major blocs where hundreds of thousands of Israelis now live. Israelis will live in a democratic state where Jews are the majority, and Palestinians will live in a state -- democratic, one hopes -- with an Arab Muslim majority. The remaining questions are how quickly or slowly that end will be reached and how to get there with minimal violence.

For Abrams, there can be no other end; all that politics can do is postpone this end or bring it about. Although it would be preferable to end the conflict as soon as possible, there is no immediate need to do so. Any sense of immediacy, Abrams writes, is overblown: he claims that nongovernmental organizations and some in the international community unjustly point to a humanitarian crisis to create unwarranted urgency.

In reviewing our book, Occupation of the Territories, Abrams attempts to assuage worries about the need for urgent action, going so far as to compare Israel's military behavior during its 45-year occupation of the West Bank -- in which Israel has expropriated land, seized natural resources, and settled its own population there -- to the United States' behavior during in its ten-year occupation and massive reconstruction of Germany after World War II. Abrams then implies that Breaking the Silence does not provide reliable or sufficient evidence for the claim that, in his words, "the presence of Israeli settlers and IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers in the West Bank is laying waste to the area, reducing it to misery."

Contrary to what Abrams writes, Breaking the Silence does not consider itself a human rights organization. Rather, we are a group of around 800 Israeli combat veterans with firsthand experience in enforcing military rule in the West Bank and Gaza. We have manned checkpoints, conducted house arrests, and faced down rocks thrown by Palestinian villagers. We therefore claim the authority not only of eyewitnesses but also of participants and perpetrators. Our experience has taught us that realities on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza are often quite different from the way they are portrayed by foreign analysts.

A case in point is Abrams' claim that the testimonies regarding Gaza are misleading because Israel left the territory in 2005. What Abrams does not mention is that the book includes testimonies from soldiers who served in Gaza after 2005. These soldiers administered the Israeli navy's blockade of Gaza and carried out military operations to round up potential Palestinian informants. In other words, Israel's military control of Gaza has continued even after the 2005 disengagement.
Another example that Abrams cites in order to question our reliability is one soldier's testimony regarding the sealing of Nablus during the second intifada in 2001.

Abrams claims that the situation in Nablus today has improved, and he finds the testimony in question misleading. We are not strangers to Nablus (one of the co-authors of this response participated as an infantry officer in the sealing of the city in 2001), and we find Abrams' confidence unwarranted. Even today, although some roads into Nablus are indeed open, one cannot exit the city except on these roads, as the rest of Nablus is sealed by a system of checkpoints and Israeli-only roads that service the settlements. And even if this were not the case, it seems odd that the devastating assault on the city less than a decade ago would strike Abrams as being politically irrelevant today. Does he feel the same way about violence unleashed on Israeli cities around the same time?

To this day, the inhabitants of Nablus have no say about whether their city will be sealed. The IDF may seal it tomorrow morning if it so wishes. Just this past summer, the IDF mobilized a whole brigade to escort 21 buses of Israeli settlers who wished to pray at Joseph's Tomb in the city. For better or worse, Nablus remains at Israel's mercy, because, just as it was a decade ago, the city is still very much under Israeli occupation.

Abrams attributes to us the claim that Israel's military presence and settlements are reducing the West Bank to misery. But we do not in fact suggest that humanitarian crises are the inevitable result of military occupation and settlements. Nor do we believe that military occupations are problematic only if they lead to humanitarian crises. Rather, we argue that as long as Israeli military rule remains in place, the Palestinians will live at Israel's mercy, with their well-being and very lives dependent on Israel's discretion. Our book is a detailed elaboration and defense of this claim: it describes Israel's military rule from the point of view of those who enforce it. We have raided houses in the middle of the night for the sole purpose of what the IDF calls "establishing deterrence" (in other words, instilling fear) and decided which Palestinian civilians would be allowed to pass through checkpoints and which would not. In Occupation of the Territories, we describe how we have denied people the basic liberties to which every human being has a right -- all in the name of security for Israel and for its settlements in the West Bank, whose existence is widely condemned by the international community.

Abrams believes that after Israel's retreat, only the major settlement blocs (large clusters of settlements) will remain in Israel's possession. But as the settlements continue to grow rapidly, so do the future settlement blocs. To argue that the duration of Israel's occupation has no bearing on a future Palestinian state's borders and sovereignty is therefore misleading. This past summer, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doubled the land allocated to settlers in the Jordan Valley, the area that would form a Palestinian state's border with Jordan and its only border that would not directly touch Israel. Netanyahu's policy of settlement expansion there will ultimately turn the Jordan Valley into yet another settlement bloc, completely encircling the West Bank with Jewish settlements.

Abrams is in no hurry to end the occupation. There is only one end he deems proper -- an Israel with settlement blocs next to a viable Palestinian state -- and this end might be reached "quickly or slowly," as he puts it. What Abrams fails to mention is that the slower this end comes, the better for those in Israel who have aspirations to expand Israel's territory, for in the meantime, the settlements continue to grow and a future Palestinian state gets smaller. More important, to acquiesce in the status quo while waiting for Abrams' end to come is to renounce Israel's most sacred liberal values. Self-determination and freedom are inalienable rights, and these convictions lie at the foundation of Israel's aspirations. They remain empty words, however, as long as Israel militarily occupies the lands of the Palestinians and rules over them against their will.

ODED NAAMAN and MIKHAEL MANEKIN are the co-editors of Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers' Testimonies 2000-2010 and served in the Israel Defense Forces.

ABRAMS REPLIES

Oded Naaman and Mikhael Manekin do clarify that Breaking the Silence is not a human rights group, but they clarify little else. BTS' view, which sees Israeli settlers and settlements as the root of all evil, does not allow for shades of gray and elides the complexities of the real world.

The question of the Jordan Valley provides a good example. The position of the current Israeli government is that the Jordan River must remain a security border, not that settlements must remain there. In a May 2011 speech to the Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "The settlement blocs must remain within the State of Israel," but his only mention of the Jordan Valley was to say that security required a "long-term IDF presence along the Jordan River."

Nevertheless, Naaman and Manekin write that "Netanyahu's policy of settlement expansion there will ultimately turn the Jordan Valley into yet another settlement bloc." As evidence, they cite how "Netanyahu doubled the land allocated to settlers in the Jordan Valley" last summer. Not quite. The World Zionist Organization, a group that is close to, but officially distinct from, the Office of the Prime Minister, made that announcement, not the Israeli government; in fact, what is planned is that Israeli farmers there will be allowed to double the size of their agricultural plots from roughly nine acres to 20, with the justification that it is hard to make a living farming only nine acres. The settler population will not increase under this plan, making it hard to imagine how it would "turn the Jordan Valley into [a] settlement bloc." The reaction to the announcement by David Lahiani, the head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, which represents the area's settlers, is telling. He said, "Until our fate is determined, we want to live a normal life." In other words, he, unlike Naaman and Manekin, acknowledges that the decision permitting more land to be cultivated does not resolve the future of the area.

Naaman and Manekin also confuse increases in the settlement population with the expansion of the settlements' land area, claiming that "as the settlements continue to grow rapidly, so do the future settlement blocs." Such logic equates population growth with physical expansion -- but the two are not the same. If a large settlement, such as Maale Adumim (with a population of 40,000 people), which all sides understand will remain part of Israel, adds some new apartment houses, its borders do not expand and a future negotiated settlement becomes no harder.

As to Nablus, the grim picture BTS paints is unwarranted. A news story from the online publication The Electronic Intifada from last April, for example, criticized various Israeli restrictions and problems with the Palestinian economy but candidly noted that "in the city of Nablus, . . . the main streets, torn up by Israeli bulldozers and tanks nearly a decade ago, are packed with cars. Traffic lights have replaced the rule of chaos. Al-Mujamma, a massive ten-story complex, overlooks Nablus' ancient old city. It hosts a shopping mall, a cinema, various companies and an underground taxi station. On Saturdays, scores of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship flock into the vibrant markets."

On the question of mobility, although it is certainly true that Israel remains entirely in control, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Palestinian territories reported last December that "2010 saw a marked improvement in Palestinians' and Israeli Arabs' ability to move around the West Bank, notably within and between urban areas." But BTS seems determined to deny that there is any progress at all. It does not want one additional settler to move to the West Bank, nor any Israeli to lay one additional brick there. This may be a defensible political position, but it must be defended without recourse to exaggerated arguments.

Gaza provides another example of this pattern of ideologically driven hyperbole. Naaman and Manekin write that "Israel's military control of Gaza has continued even after the 2005 disengagement." This is an odd claim, given that Gaza has a border with Egypt over which Israel has no control. What is more, within Gaza itself, Hamas has complete domination, 13,000 to 15,000 men under arms, and a large arsenal of missiles, rockets, and other weapons.

The desire of Naaman and Manekin to end the occupation is admirable (although their allegation that I am "in no hurry" to do so is less admirable), but they seem to believe that this is a simple matter requiring only Israeli willpower, as if there were nothing on the other side of the equation. In their apparent worldview, there is no Hamas, no corrupt and incompetent Fatah Party, no current terrorism, nor any threat of increased terrorism if the IDF pulls out of the West Bank entirely. The soldiers who are now members of BTS should know better, which perhaps may explain why so few former IDF soldiers are affiliated with the group: there are 175,000 soldiers in the IDF and 450,000 in the reserves, but according to BTS' own claims, there are only around 800 former Israeli soldiers in the organization.

At the end of their response, Naaman and Manekin allow themselves a lovely peroration: "Self-determination and freedom are inalienable rights, and these convictions lie at the foundation of Israel's aspirations. They remain empty words, however, as long as Israel militarily occupies the lands of the Palestinians." Their position that Israeli "freedom" is an empty word today is extreme and mirrors the worst anti-Israel propaganda. Moreover, it once again seeks to make simple what is in fact quite complex. Palestinian self-determination may not result in freedom, as Hamas' rise in Gaza has shown. Naaman and Manekin's mission of ending the Israeli occupation is a difficult military, political, and diplomatic undertaking, which is why it has taken decades and may take years or even decades more. Their execration of the actions of Israel's government and security forces will not bring it any faster.

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