How American citizens are leading rise of ‘settler violence’ on Palestinian lands | Palestinian territories

Washington’s ban on travel to the US by extremist Jewish settlers who attack Palestinians in the West Bank has one gaping loophole.

American citizens have been at the forefront of the rise of settler violence in the occupied territories, and the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their land, but as US passport holders they cannot be barred from their own country.

Many of the estimated 60,000 Americans living in the West Bank outside of occupied East Jerusalem moved to settlements for the lifestyle and have little to do with the Palestinians on whose land they live. But a core of ideologically driven US citizens were at the forefront of building religious settlements on land expropriated from Palestinians while others have led the rise of what has been described as “settler terrorism”.

The US announced the travel restrictions as settler violence against unarmed Palestinians escalated in the wake of the Hamas cross-border attack in October, including shootings, the destruction of Arab homes and entire communities driven out at gunpoint. The UN estimates that about 500 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank this year including dozens of children. While Israel claims many of the dead were associated with armed Palestinian groups, the UN said the army frequently works with settlers attacking Arab civilians.

Hadar Susskind, president of Americans for Peace Now, said these settlers militias draw inspiration from two Americans infamous as the godfathers of the campaign of violence against ordinary Palestinians.

An American doctor from Brooklyn, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in the West Bank city of Hebron in 1994. Goldstein was a follower of another American, Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the far-right religious Kach party that was eventually banned in Israel and the US under anti-terrorism laws.

“If you asked who are the most prominent examples of literally murderous violent settler extremism, the two answers are Goldstein and Kahane. Those people are the prophets of the settler movement,” said Susskind.

“Earlier this year I led a trip to Israel and Palestine. We went to Hebron and stopped in Meir Kahane park where they have a shrine to Baruch Goldstein. His grave is there. It’s shocking that they have a public park named after an American whose party was declared so racist that it was not allowed to be in the Knesset, a person who espoused violence and hatred. And then a shrine to Baruch Goldstein who took those lessons from Kahane and actualised them in murdering a group of people at prayer.”

The spokesperson for the Hebron settlers who maintain the memorials to Kahane and Goldstein was for many years an American from New Jersey, David Wilder.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew and his baby visit the grave of Baruch Goldstein who killed 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/EPA

Americans account for only about 15% of the total settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem but their influence outweighs their numbers.

Sara Hirschhorn, author of a study of Jewish American settlers, City on a Hilltop, said they were distinguished from many other Jewish immigrants who make “aliyah” to Israel and live the other side of the “green line” between Israel and the West Bank.

“Typically we describe American aliyah as an aliyah of choice because these aren’t immigrants like, say, today’s Ukrainians coming to Israel fleeing war or those fleeing persecution or poverty. Rather Americans are looking to fulfil a set of ideological, religious or lifestyle values that they find in Israel and particularly over the green line,” she said.

“Some of them wanted the lifestyle they lived in New Jersey which was not the lifestyle of Israel 20 or 30 years ago but they built it in the settlements.”

Hirschhorn said the bulk of American Jews arrived in the decade or so after the 1967 war and the start of the occupation of the West Bank. They were founders of settlements such as Efrat and Tekoa built on confiscated Palestinian land. She said many were Democrats who regarded the settlement project as enlightened.

“They brought with them a set of progressive values and tactics that they didn’t see themselves as leaving behind when they came to Israel. Rather they saw themselves applying the toolkit of the left in the United States, of the social movements of the 60s and 70s. They hoped that these settlements really would be a city on a hill as a shining beacon to the rest of the world. This is really the way Americans saw their project in the occupied territories,” she said.

Israeli soldiers guard Jewish settlers who launched an attack on the Palestinian town of Deir Sharaf in the northern West Bank on 2 November.
Israeli soldiers guard Jewish settlers who launched an attack on the Palestinian town of Deir Sharaf in the West Bank on 2 November. Photograph: Sopa Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

That delusion was stripped away by the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, the Palestinian uprising against occupation and the expropriation of their land, when the immigrants could no longer avoid confronting the reality of the settlement project. Hirschhorn calls it “a moment of reckoning” for American settlers.

“They had to make certain choices about what direction they could go in. Could they continue to live in the occupied territories with a progressive set of values? Some chose to leave at that moment, some chose to abandon their progressive values, some chose to try to live with a sense of cognitive dissonance after the first intifada,” she said.

“There have been several watershed moments where the rubber has met the road when it comes to progressive values and settler realities. The peace process itself in the 1990s saw hardening of opinion amongst the settler movement who saw their own future in danger.”

Hirschhorn estimates that another 100,000 American settlers live in occupied East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs immediately around the city. They have been instrumental in the takeover of Arab homes through well-funded settler organisations.

Later American arrivals were often Orthodox Jews who included Goldstein. But while some responded to the intifada with their own violence, US citizens were also at the forefront of selling the settlement movement to the rest of the world.

“We see Americans using their skills, both the English language but also their deep ability to connect with western audiences over vocabulary and values, to really radically transform the public relations of the Israeli settler movement to market and justify the project to western audiences,” she said.

Hirschhorn said that in turn has had an important impact on Israeli politics with American settlers serving in key roles including chief of staff to prime ministers and top aides to members of the Israeli parliament.

“As much of Israeli politics has become increasingly Americanised, you see these figures making very significant appearances. So they certainly have an impact on Israeli domestic policy even if it’s not always as visible to everyone.”

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