Hiding in Plain Sight

The settlement's security man did not like us. He did not like the cameraman with his bulky gear, or the two documentary film producers who'd brought Dror Etkes and me to the outpost of Derekh Ha'avot south of Bethlehem, and he certainly didn't like Etkes, an Israeli activist known for expertise on land ownership and for his legal challenges to West Bank settlement. The security coordinator wore civvies but bounced a bit on the balls of his feet in the spring-coiled posture of junior combat officers, or recently discharged officers.

"You can't film in the neighborhood," he told us. Neighborhood is a euphemism for an outpost, a mini-setttlement ostensibly established in defiance of the Israeli government but actually enjoying state support. Derekh Ha'avot -- the name means "Forefathers' Road" -- is next to the veteran settlement of Elazar but outside its municipal boundaries. The security man worked for Elazar. Filming would be "a security risk. I don't know a lot about security, but I know a little," he sneered, meaning, I know a whole lot.

That security argument, I can say with very little risk, was a bluff. Derekh Ha'avot, home to three dozen families, stands on privately owned Palestinian land, as military authorities confirmed in an October 2007 letter to another activist, Hagit Ofran (in Hebrew). But last year, in a ploy to evade a Supreme Court order to demolish the outpost, the Defense Ministry announced it was reexamining the land's status to see whether it was actually state property.

The man facing us at the outpost who wanted nothing filmed was making his small contribution to keeping the occupation's realities out of the sight of the majority of the Israeli public. For that, he deserves thanks from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Comfortable public ignorance of West Bank realities is essential to the Netanyahu's domestic efforts to paint a fictional picture of the West Bank and of Israel's deteriorating diplomatic situation.

The ambiguous role of the West Bank security coordinators also belongs to that unseen world. Every settlement has one. Ads for the job ask for ex-officers. The money for their salaries and the bullet-proof SUVs in which they patrol in and around their settlements comes from the Defense Ministry, but is channeled via the settlements' local government. When I once tried to interview the security coordinator of Kiryat Arba, a major settlement next to Hebron, the mayor's office told me I'd need the army's permission. An army spokesman insisted the man was a civilian, and not his problem. Settler leaders reacted with fury in 2009 when the army issued maps defining each coordinator's jurisdiction -- a move that reportedly made it harder for the quasi-sheriffs to drive Palestinians off disputed land near settlements. The maps, though, gave the coordinators legal authority for security in the officially illegal outposts. If this description seems riddled with contradictions, you've understood it properly.

At Derekh Ha'avot, we conducted a ritual argument with the security man, then drove away on a dirt road across a terraced valley toward the neighboring settlement of Alon Shvut. Within a few moments, two dark green army jeeps were following us. When the cameraman began filming them through the back window, one jeep swung around us and stopped. A lieutenant climbed out, demanded our ID cards, and ordered us to stay put. We stood outside the car in the midday Middle Eastern sun. An hour or so passed. Settlers drove around us. At last a police van arrived. "We want to go," Etkes told the cop. "Go," the policeman told us -- since he didn't have legal grounds to do otherwise. All of this -- the orders to leave the outpost, the soldiers backing up the settler, the harassment that began and ended without explanation -- is curiously normal, a script familiar to Israelis trying to increase public awareness of what's happening in the West Bank.

We did, however, stop a bit further down the road, where several rows of olive saplings had recently been planted on a strip of hillside. Each sapling was in a protective plastic sleeve with a label reading "The Fund for Building and Development in the Hills of Judea." Smaller print said the fund was founded by Women in Green, a vocal and extreme settler organization. The grove is also on private Palestinian land, Etkes said, basing himself on data gained in freedom-of-information actions. The valley, he explained, has been a target of settler efforts "to take control of every crumb" of land. Neither the police nor the army have stopped the effort. Whether the settlers are acting as an arm of the state, or the state as an arm of the settlers, is a figure-ground problem.

This incident took place within ten miles of my home in Jerusalem. The West Bank is not across an ocean from Israel. Yet is has gradually become terra incognita for most Israelis. Outside of settlers, few find reason to travel there, especially since the Second Intifada. Even those settlers who are interested mostly in suburban comfort can drive by the checkpoints and fences without paying attention, the way an American commuter can drive past slums on the way to a mid-town office. The Hebrew press does report on land theft and court cases, on settlement construction, on the disturbing stories told by ex-servicemen. It is easy to skip the articles with upsetting headlines or with bylines known to bring irritation. There is nothing particularly Israeli about avoiding painful news.

But the ease of not knowing is what allows Netanyahu to spin his stories. In his speech to Congress last week -- a performance largely aimed at the domestic audience, with the applauding senators and representatives as extras -- Netanyahu referred to the " dramatic demographic changes that have occurred" in the West Bank since 1967, and to the "650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines." The prime minister's numbers went virtually unchallenged at home, though data from the government's Central Bureau of Statistics show that about 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and annexed East Jeusalem. Inflating the real number by 30 percent, Netanyahu made a withdrawal seem even more difficult than it is. By referring to changes that "have occurred," he made settlement sound like a geological shift, rather than a project assiduously carried out by the state -- a project Netanyahu has refused to halt. Since the speech, Netanyahu's statistics have gained the flavor of fact. His popularity has climbed in the polls.

On Monday, speaking to parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the prime minister spun the next piece of his story. "No one can stop the United Nations General Assembly from recognizing the Palestinian state in September," he said. Again, he described something akin to a process of nature.

In fact, there is an alternative to a vote that will leave Israel more isolated internationally. The alternative is to stop settlement expansion, stop selling the Israeli public the illusion that settlements will stay in place and that Palestinians are living easily under occupation -- and begin to negotiate seriously now. Netanyahu's ability to tell tales with a straight face and firm voice helps him evade that option. So does each small effort to keep the reality of the occupation unseen.

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