GUEST COMMENTARY - THE FUTURE OF YESHA

The following is an excerpt from a seminar presentation by Marc Zell given on 30 September 1999 at the ICEJ’s Feast of Tabernacles celebration is Jerusalem. Zell is an Israeli attorney who resides in the Gush Etzion area of Judea.
I’m here to set the stage for a discussion about the future of the YESHA communities. We don’t like to call them “settlements” – like the world calls them. We like to call them towns and villages and communities, just like the rest of you live in back in the United States and Europe and wherever you come from. I would like to give you some background about where we are in these oh-so-critical negotiations that will determine the fate of the 200,000 Jews of the very heartland of the Land of Israel.

First of all, some people refer to YESHA — the areas of Judea, Samaria and Gaza — as the “West Bank.” The Jews that live in these areas are called “settlers.” And that, at one time in Israel’s history, was a badge of honor. After all, the Land of Israel was reclaimed by “settlers,” in kibbutzim and moshavim, who through their own courage and perseverance set the borders of this country, and because of their sacrifice, this country came into existence. And to have been a settler in those days was a great, great distinction.

But today, to be a settler is to be an “obstacle.” Today, to be a settler is to be a “problem.” It is kind of a curse. Many of you do not speak Hebrew, but when you listen to the leaders of our country and the academic elite, when they refer to us… the “settlers”… it is with a tinge of disdain and perhaps disgust. In the minds of people around the world, the settlements are primitive tent camps, scattered around and populated by crazy settlers who have some kind of Messianic dream, and who live this life of fantasy and hyperbole. But you will see a very different reality when you go there today.

What is going to happen to those 140 or so communities… whose fate now is on the negotiating table between Israel and the PLO, and as a former American, unfortunately on the agenda of the United States government. All this is happening in the context of the Oslo Agreements.

It is interesting though that, when it comes to the settlements and the settlers, those agreements — which I have read very carefully as a lawyer, since I represent the United States in the Palestinian autonomy on certain transactions – they don’t really have much to say about settlements. This was on purpose. They agreed – you all remember that famous scene on the White House Lawn – that the settlements would not be on the discussion table until we came to the final-status negotiations…

I would like for you to understand what is involved when we talk about these final-status talks. If the fate of 200,000 human beings were not enough, we are also talking issues that will affect the very future of Israel, whatever shape it will take. We are talking about the future of its water resources, the ability of the Jewish state to defend itself in a military context, borders, and where they will put another Arab state vis-à-vis Israel.

The majority of Israel’s underground water resources, which we need in this parched area of the globe to survive, lies under Judea and Samaria… You could very easily imagine a situation where a hostile power controlling these underground aquifers could just literally turn off the spigot and cause horrible damage to civilians on the other side in Israel.

Then there is the problem of topography, and it is a military problem primarily. I like to demonstrate this by just the fist of my hand, to show you the kind of problem the Israeli military will have to face if it decides to relinquish the high ground of Judea and Samaria. If you can imagine my fist representing a cross-section of the Land of Israel, where over here near my wrist is the Mediterranean Sea, and my knuckles are the mountain range that divides this country, and then this steep slope that goes down to the Jordan Valley… Now it does not take a great military mind to understand that the person that controls my knuckles, that is the mountain ridge, has a lot to say about what goes on either side of the ridge. We are talking about putting Yasser Arafat… exactly where those knuckles are, on the mountain ridge. And that is where many of the Jewish settlements are as well. That is what is at stake here.

Now the borders are another issue, basically the 1967 borders. At one place near Tulkarm, the Palestinian state likely will be 10 miles from our coastline. What possible sense that makes, I don’t know. But it looks like that is going to happen.

Now what exactly is going to happen? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else, including our prime minister. But there are some signs [that] are not particularly encouraging. The prime minister is bent on getting a peace agreement during his term. He has put his entire political prestige and that of his party on this point. This prime minister is a capable man, a smart man, a loner that knows how to get things done…

And what he is talking about, or what the people around him are talking about, is a final-status situation in which most, but not all, the settlements will remain… in what he calls “blocs.” Now a Jew has a hard time with that concept, because in another age and place, “bloc” had a different name, and that name was “ghetto.” Unfortunately, the leadership of the Jewish state is seriously considering a “final solution” in which the Jews of Judea, Samaria and Gaza will be put into ghettos to live out their fate in the midst of or next to a Palestinian state.

Now, I am a father of eight children, three soldiers, and I must tell you that the prospect that our prime minister is holding before our nation is frightening to me. On the other hand, we have to understand this. He was elected, elected by a significant majority, and the people of this country will probably support him.

I cannot for the life of me understand how a majority of the Jewish people could seriously consider an arrangement where they relinquish control over the very heartland of their own country, the place that contains something like 92% of the holy places mentioned in our Bible. Now I have a friend who is a judge. He is not religious, not a right-winger, but he is a remarkable man, a real Zionist. He has some young kids and got into the habit of bringing them to Gush Etzion to have them walk on the hills where the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs walked… And he said to me: “My party has embarked on a process that may mean we will leave these areas. How can I explain to my children why they should stay wherever they live in Tel Aviv or in Haifa or in Eilat or western Jerusalem, if I have to explain to them that we left the very source of their nation, of their whole identity as a people?” That’s his question.

What are we in YESHA doing to try to contend with this developing reality? That’s also a sad story, because our leadership, too, has been more-or-less bankrupt. They have done some very wonderful things. They have put a lot of “facts on the ground” over the years. But they have failed in a very miserable way in explaining the justice of our cause to the world — forget about the world — to Israel, to the Israeli people. We are called Jews. We are called Jews because we come from the tribe of Judah, from the land of Judea. We are talking about a situation where the land of the Jews, Judea, will now be returned, in large part, to Muslims. And I have the highest regard for the Islamic culture and civilization, but we have not been able to explain to the Israeli public why it is right for Jews to live in Judea.

If there is a ray of hope in this less-than-optimistic picture I’ve portrayed – it is that these 200,000 people of YESHA are remarkable people, coming from all walks of life. Religious and non-religious, immigrants and non-immigrants, Russians, native-born Israelis and Ethiopians – extraordinary people. With all due respect to the plans of our leaders to “ghettoize” us, and the plans of the Arabs to eliminate us, and the plans of the world to ignore us, I put my money on the Jews of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. That is the answer to all this. Our decision to build our homes and to raise our children and to establish our businesses, and to go on living — despite perhaps even the well-meaning intentions of a lot of people in this country and abroad to get us out of there – that is the hope.


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