When Sanders relayed their message, “the woman on the radio was more emphatic than ever. She said, ‘You’ve got to get them out of there. If they don’t leave, you must arrest them.’” Sanders followed her command and ordered the couple to leave. But the woman giving the commands was no soldier: She was a settler.
Last month, experts and officials around the world decried United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration that condemning Israeli statecraft “has not advanced the cause of peace,” and that the Israeli settlements, which constitute a war crime, are “not per se inconsistent with international law.” Many believe that the announcement marked a sharp reversal of U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine. But beyond the brazen Trumpian rhetoric that the world has come to expect from the White House, Pompeo’s claim is consistent with the United States’ historical position on Israel-Palestine. The U.S. has abetted the Israeli occupation and the development of West Bank settlements for nearly half a century.
Benzi Sanders—who grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan before claiming his “right of return” to Israel, which is offered to diaspora Jews but not to some five million Palestinian refugees—witnessed firsthand the close ties between the Israeli military and the settlers. After completing active duty, he spoke out against Israel’s “systematic repression” of Palestinians, giving testimony of what he did and saw in the West Bank to Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO that collects eyewitness evidence of Israeli violence and crimes against Palestinians from former soldiers. Sanders told me that Israeli settlers regularly communicate with and give commands to soldiers through a military radio frequency, which is “supposed to be for emergencies,” he said, but is actually “used on a daily basis.”
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) denies that settlers have any influence over soldiers. “The IDF acts according to IDF commanders’ orders and according to security considerations only,” a military spokesperson told me. But members of Breaking the Silence disagree, having collected testimony from 39 Israeli soldiers and concluding that settlers are embedded in the military’s chain of command. “We have testimonies; we know what happens,” Becca Strober, a Jewish American and former soldier who now serves as the organization’s director of education, told me. “They absolutely give out commands on the ground.”
But settlers do more than just encourage repression of Palestinians—they take part in it, with Israel’s imprimatur. The Israeli Ministry of Defense funds, trains, and arms settlers. Individual settlements can appoint a “civilian security coordinator,” who is paid by the settlement with cash from the Ministry of Defense and has the power to search, arrest, and fire upon Palestinians at will. These “quasi-military forces” have been embedded in the architecture of the Israeli occupation since at least 1971, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization. In 2019, the Supreme Court of Israel reaffirmed the power of settlers in the West Bank, including the right to patrol private Palestinian land, after receiving a petition from Yesh Din. Israel has allowed civilian security coordinators to exercise the full ambit of their power on private Palestinian land since 2009.
Though the Trump administration is the first to explicitly support the illegal settlements, the U.S. has long used its power to insulate state and settler violence from legal retribution. In 1988, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) tried to pass a resolution that condemned Israel for “equip[ping] … settlers with arms which have been used against the civilian Palestinian people.” The U.S. struck it down.
With a permanent seat on the UNSC, the United States’ no vote functions as a de facto veto. Since 1973, the U.S. has vetoed more than 30 draft resolutions condemning the occupation and Israeli violence against Palestinians, 14 of which either mentioned or emphasized the illegality of the settlements. In its actions, if not its words, the U.S. has abetted state and settler violence, as well as land grabs, for nearly 50 years; it has run roughshod over Palestinian rights and international law, while giving Israel a blank check to do the same. It’s in this way that Pompeo’s statement is not a divergence from past U.S. policy, but instead the purest expression of it.
The United States’ performance at the UNSC is linked to its desire to “dominate the peace process and to keep [it] under [its] purview,” says Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
In practice, controlling the peace process has meant circumventing international law. Under Barack Obama in 2011, the U.S. struck down a draft resolution condemning the settlements as “illegal” and demanding the immediate suspension of all settlement activity. Then-Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice explained the no vote at the time, saying, “Every potential action must be measured against one overriding standard: will it move the parties closer to negotiations and an agreement?” Like Pompeo, Rice was effectively saying that international law does not contribute to peace. According to her, the 2011 draft resolution “risk[ed] hardening the positions of both sides.” She proposed that “continued settlement activity,” not including the settlements that already exist, would “violate Israel’s international commitments,” studiously avoiding the language of law.
Today, 61 percent of the West Bank is under full Israeli control, and more than 400,000 settlers live in the occupied territory. The settler population, which has more than doubled since 2000, is surging. In 2018, it grew by 3.3 percent, outpacing Israel’s population growth that year. Settlement expansion begets violence—and provides more urgent reminders that Palestinians effectively live without civil rights. If a Palestinian files a complaint against a settler, for example, an Israeli police investigation ends in conviction less than 2 percent of the time. By contrast, Palestinians, including children as young as 12, have a 99.74 percent chance of conviction in Israeli military courts.
“White House administrations have looked at international law, and specifically Israeli violations of [it], as fundamentally separate from and inherently opposed to the advance of peace,” Munayyer says. But “nothing could be further from the truth. Accountability and justice are not antithetical to peace; they are prerequisites for peace.”
Within American politics, international law has been similarly neglected. The original text of a 2019 House resolution, H. Res. 326, condemned illegal Israeli statecraft, calling for “an end to the occupation” and “settlement activity.” But the bill that passed, with support from nearly 200 House Democrats, struck the word “occupation” and only mentioned “settlement expansion,” ignoring the 250-plus official and unofficial settlements that already exist.
With a few notable exceptions, U.S. politicians are unperturbed by what Benzi Sanders described to me as an “absurd, impossible, and immoral” reality in occupied Palestine. But the American public seems increasingly keen to understand the Israeli occupation and how to end it. In Breaking the Silence’s first-ever American tour to feature Jewish Americans who served in the IDF, the organization held anti-occupation events in synagogues and community centers across the country. At a tour stop in Washington, D.C., audience members shuffled into the creaky wooden pews of Temple Sinai to listen to Sanders, Strober, and others relate the brutalities they witnessed—and perpetuated—against Palestinians.
American and Israeli flags dangled on either side of the stage as Strober, who grew up in Philadelphia, rebuked the Jewish American community’s complicity in the Israeli occupation and erasure of Palestine. “I didn’t know what the Green Line was until I was 17,” she said, referring to the demarcation line that separates the West Bank from Israel. “In a liberal Jewish community, that’s a problem. And that’s on the responsibility of the community.”
Over the phone, Sanders told me of another fact most Jewish Americans do not understand: “If this reality [in occupied Palestine] becomes permanent, it will be apartheid.” But the occupation is in its 53rd year; a generation of West Bank Palestinians have lived and died under Israeli military rule. For them, the occupation was permanent. Moreover, Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank fall under two separate systems of law: Settlers are governed by Israeli civil law, while Palestinians live under military rule. The bipartite legal system, which affords differential rights and privileges, is nothing other than apartheid.
Though Strober and Sanders have confronted a reality that Sanders described as “absurd, impossible, and immoral,” they both embody the kind of optimism that justice demands of its advocates. “If you’re looking at the American Jewish community, you can only be hopeful,” Strober told me. “Younger American Jews are becoming more aware of this incongruity between their liberal values and the occupation,” Sanders said