A note about this post: With John Kerry's current visit to the Middle East, the issue of Israeli "settlements" has come back into the news, because the Israeli government announced the approval of building permits for a couple hundred apartment units in East Jerusalem, immediately adjacent to the city. This is a post I wrote four years ago about these settlements, which I think may still be interesting to people.
Having spent a reasonable amount of time in Jerusalem and the adjacent areas of the West Bank, I get the feeling that there is a lot of misunderstanding on both sides on the issue of "settlements" in the Jerusalem area, and I would like to write about what I think I know.
I want to say first of all, that nothing I have to say here is in any way intended to be a defense of Benjamin Netanyahu, who I have always believed to be an American-style right wing warmongering demagogue more like Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay than anyone Israelis are used to seeing.
To explain my viewpoint, I would like to refer to a couple of maps of Jerusalem. You may need to click on them to see them properly, as they have a lot of detail.
The first map I would like you to see is this one, from the early 1880's The colored parts represent the old city, lying behind walls which had enclosed relatively the same area since the first century A.D. As you can see, as late as this time, only a hundred and thirty years ago, there was almost nothing of Jerusalem outside the old city and adjacent areas such as the Mount of Olives, across from the temple mount. Thus, very little of what exists outside of this area really can be considered as part of the holy Jerusalem revered by all three major monotheistic religions.
Next, let's turn to a current map of Jerusalem:
The tan area on this map represents the boundaries of the current built-up area of Jerusalem. The dark blue area is the old city. The current dividing line between East and West Jerusalem runs in an approximate north-south line through the old city.
Here is the funny thing about Jerusalem: It is one of the oldest cities in the world, yet except for a small part of it, it is more contemporary with American cities than the great cities of Europe or Asia. No one can really claim that his ancestors have long lived in the greatest part of Jerusalem.
Now, let's look at this third map:
Israeli "settlements" are shown in this map in the darker blue color. Also shown is the Israeli constructed ring road, designed to eliminate some of the absolutely maddening driving conditions that exist in the city. I can tell you that, even with the ring road, driving for more than a few minutes in Jerusalem is enough to send a person into deep insanity.
Well, as you can see from this map, most of these developments are inside the ring road, or just outside of it. Remember that Jerusalem is built on top of rather steep hills, and most of the land shown as undeveloped inside the ring road is nearly unbuildable.
Now let's look at a couple of pictures of one of the largest of these developments, Maale Adumim. First is a view of it:
I wonder if your reaction to this is the same as mine was when I saw things like this in real life- this is hardly what I expected in the way of what you would call a "settlement."
Now, here is another picture:
This is a view looking back toward Jerusalem from Maale Adumim. What you see in the foreground is what is generally described as an Arab "village." In the background is Mount Scopus.
What point am I trying to make here? Words are powerful things. The word "village" implies that this area is somewhere that people have lived for a long, long time, and have deep family roots, while the word "settlement" carries heavy implications from the time of colonialism, and conveys the notion that someone has come along and just plopped themselves down on someone else's territory.
We actually have a far more appropriate name for such areas here in America. These both are neither settlements nor villages- they are suburbs.
I want to state that I am opposed to a great majority of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank (and yes, I have been to a number of them too.) But these areas around Jerusalem are not in the same category at all, and treating them as hostile incursions only serves to prolong the stubbornness of parties on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We should deal with the settlements that really are a part of an intransigent, irredentist religious movement, and not treat the natural growth of a modern city as some sort of abomination.