The Economist
July 21, 2011 - 12:00am

EVERY Friday and often after school on other days, Israeli soldiers fire tear-gas and sonic bombs at the Palestinian children as they approach a spring. It sits in a valley that separates Nabi Saleh, an Arab village of 500 people half an hour’s drive north of Jerusalem, from Halamish, a religious Jewish settlement. On most nights jeeps roll through the village; over the past 18 months the Israeli army has detained 32 of its children, some as young as eleven. Many have been taken from their beds, kept in pre-trial detention for months, and brought to court in shackles, there to be convicted of stone-throwing.

For some of Halamish’s settlers, irritated by the tear-gas that wafts into their living rooms from across the hill, this is not harsh enough. “The soldiers don’t maim enough Palestinians,” complains Iran Segal. A year-and-a-half ago he put up a sign naming the spring after his father, sparking anger among Palestinians who saw the move as a land-grab. Jewish settlers and Palestinians who used to share a nargila (a water-pipe) at the water’s edge now bicker over ownership of the spring’s goldfish. “When we see Arabs heading towards us we start shouting to get the army to shoo them away,” says a 12-year-old settler.

Israel’s army has long presented itself as holding the ring between two fractious communities in the West Bank, Jewish and Arab, living in what Palestinians see as the heartland of their future state. But as pressure on Israel to pull out mounts, some Palestinians and some Jewish settlers have begun to contemplate what the future might hold, if and when the army leaves. The issue is highly topical, not least because of a new law this month to ban many political boycotts, including those aimed at West Bank settlements.

Some views are, on the face of things, surprisingly flexible. A former head of the Israeli prime minister’s office, who lives in Ofra settlement on the West Bank, backs a single state in which Palestinians and Israelis share full political rights. Other settlers have voiced support for the concept of “parallel states”, in which Jews and Arabs would owe their allegiance to separate parliaments but share a single territory and army. Yet others propose that settlers should stay on the West Bank—under Palestinian rule. “It could be a good solution,” says a local councillor, Ziki Kravitz, who hankers for the time when Jewish settlers and Arab villagers attended each other’s weddings, and wonders how he might keep his assets under Palestinian rule.

It would indeed be easier for the Israeli army to withdraw if there were an alternative to the forced evacuation of Jewish settlers. Under a widely touted compromise, some 200,000-plus of them, not counting those in East Jerusalem, might stay inside an adjusted Israeli border (with Palestinians getting equivalent land-swaps elsewhere). But that would still leave a good 80,000 in the West Bank, most of them well-armed religious Zionists who might resist any eviction with guns.

In 2009 the then chief Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qurei, told his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, that Jews would be free to live under Palestinian rule. The present prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has signalled his interest in such a proposal. “Some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders,” he told both houses of Congress in Washington, DC, in May. Some Western diplomats, frustrated by their failure to persuade Israel to stop settlement-building, might also welcome such ideas to salvage a two-state deal.

Yet raising such fundamental questions jangles many nerves. The Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly sought to block joint projects between Jewish settlements and neighbouring Arab villages for fear that co-operation would make the settlers feel more at home.

Nobody knows how many settlers might want to stay. Opinion pollsters have shied away from taking soundings. Some religious leaders among the settlers preach that both secular Jewish and non-Jewish rule are objectionable. They argue that it is more important to stay on what they deem to be Jewish land, even if it falls under a Palestinian government.

Others, however, vow to fight. “As soon as Palestinian police come through those gates, we’ll open fire,” says a pensioner in Halamish, noting that religious Zionists make up 40% of Israel’s combat units. Some hardline Jewish ideologues in isolated outposts talk of carving out their own theocratic state of Judea. “If the army leaves, we’ll declare a Halachic kingdom [ie, one governed by religious law] in the highlands alongside the secular Jewish one on the coast,” says the rabbi of a settlement called Nachliel.

Other tricky questions remain. Would Jews who stay have to take Palestinian citizenship or could they hold dual nationality? Would settlements remain exclusively Jewish or be open to all Palestinian citizens? How would Palestinian courts deal with claims against settlers who live on land taken from Arabs? Most awkward of all, how would a Palestinian government disarm settlers who insisted on retaining self-defence militias?

Yet the readiness to coexist on both sides may be stronger than is often realised. Noam Arnon, who speaks for the Jews in Hebron, the biggest city in the southern part of the West Bank, once cheered total separation, with settlers fiercely defending their homes in urban areas. Today he marches to protest against the erection of separation barriers around Palestinian villages and insists on visiting shops there. “There’s no reason why Jews can’t conduct themselves normally vis-à-vis Palestinians,” he says, “just as we did in the past.”


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