Evaluating “The Economist” on Hebron’s sticky settler problem

I will be the first one to admit I’m not an expert on world affairs. And neither am I someone resolutely opposed to reading “The Economist”, I think there is often valuable information and analysis inside, all the more valuable if you are aware of the magazine’s bias and can attempt to read around it. 

But today when I read “Not so Easy”, an article in the Economist about the matter of Hebron in a future “Palestinian state”, I feel the need to respond. There is some good journalism here, there are maps to help the reader understand the complex situation which the settlement has produced in Hebron. However, there are still overt traces of standard western pro-Israeli bias, which need to be exposed and discussed.

Firstly, the Economist’s characterization of the settlement situation in general:

About 200,000 of the 300,000 or so settlers now living on the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem, where another 200,000 Jews now reside in what was the mainly Arab-inhabited part of the city) would fall on the Israeli side of an adjusted border…

At first glance, what is the problem? I might be expected to say that the problem is the artificial division of East Jerusalem from the Westbank. The annexation of East Jerusalem was not recognized by any countries in the world, not even the United States, and for this reason you won’t find any embassies of any countries in the city of Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is not Israel, and yet the economist reproduces the standard way of speaking about it, which is to divide it from the rest of the Westbank. This is a major problem for an article on the “two state solution”, because such a solution is dead in the water without a return of East Jerusalem to Arab control.

But what’s more strange, is the way the economist describes East Jerusalem: “200,000 Jews now reside in what was the mainly Arab-inhabited part of the city”. Does it mean that East Jerusalem once was a mainly Arab inhabited part, but is now mainly Jewish? But, according to the most recent census I was able to find, East Jerusalem remains a “mainly Arab-inhabited part of the city” at 57% Arab Muslim.  Maybe it meant that before Israel’s conquest and annexation of the territory it was “mainly” arab. But to use “mainly” here seems ridiculous – how many non-Arabs lived in East Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967? The jews from the Old City were expelled, I’m often told by Zionists that not a single Jew remained. This error doesn’t fit into a political agenda, I think, but it does show a kind of sloppiness with respect to the history that makes me wonder who is writing these articles, and whether wikipedia is perhaps their major source? But, anyway, this article is about Hebron, so I should move onto that.

 After the war of 1967 Hebron came back under Jewish control for the first time in 2,000 years.

Really, first time in 2000 years? Except that it’s not true – the last time Hebron was under Jewish control was during the Bar Kokhba Revolt, which happened in 132-136 C.E. So it would be more accurate to say the first time in “less than 1900 years”, but it doesn’t sound as impressive, does it? The Bar Kokhba Revolt is a constantly omitted part of Israeli ancient history when talking to non-Jews because it breaks up the simple narrative about the “exile” (which Shlomo Sand has argued never happened). How could there have been a several year long Jewish revolt in 132 if the Jews had been exiled in 70, never to return again until the first Aliyah? The economist is better than this simple referencing of biblical history, covering over complexity. What we should see here is interrogation of narratives, asking questions about why we tell this story when it clearly isn’t true – who’s purpose does it serve, what violence does it justify? That’s what real intellectual investigative journalists would do. But, I shouldn’t complain, we are talking about the Economist…

The way the article describes scenes of violence further clarifies how the Economist wants to present the situation in Hebron:

Hebron further stirs emotions on both sides because of two terrible massacres. In 1929, 67 Jews are reckoned to have been killed by rioting Arabs. And in 1994 a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, gunned down 29 Palestinians worshipping in the Ibrahimi mosque.


This description isn’t problematic because it leaves out any other important massacres (although it might, I don’t know because I’m not an expert), but in leaving out the context of both massacres it obscures the role of Zionism in the political contention of Hebron. Jews have lived in Hebron peacefully for hundreds of years, but religious-zionist jews who moved to Hebron to study in the 1920s changed the perception of the local Jews from peaceful neighbors to dangerous colonists, which meant unfortunately many Jews were targeted in the 1929 riots including anti-Zionist jews from the Old Yishuv who wanted nothing to do with the the ZIonist project and would likely despise the Jews living in Hebron today (I’ve written about this recently). The 1994 massacre was carried about by an fundamentalist religious-zionist Jew from the Kach movement in an attempt to stop the peace process. He machine-gunned muslims while they were bent over and praying, while wearing his IDF uniform and employing his standard issue IDF weapon. Both massacres, therefore, were products of Zionist colonization, one a reaction against it, and the other a reaction against the moderating forces within it. But the Economist isn’t interested in analysis of ideas or social forces when it doesn’t benefit its political line – it would rather reduce these things to subjective emotions, because it makes it much easier to paint this as a “conflict” between “two sides”.

Under-descrptive language is at it again when the Economist describes the ways that Jews were able to acquire property in the old city of Hebron:

The Israeli settler lobby argues that most of the land where settlers reside in Hebron was anyway not privately owned by Palestinians; some of it has been confiscated for military purposes; some was state land (under the Ottoman and other later authorities); and some was owned by Jews who lived there until the 1930s. Some Palestinians, to the chagrin of their nationalist brothers, have been persuaded to sell up—to Jewish settlers.

The first four reasons are all problematic and I could speak about them at length, but I’d rather focus on the fifth – the idea that Palestinians have been “persuaded” to sell to Jewish settlers. While strictly true, to say this and to not expand on the contents of the “persuasion” is negligent. The normal methods of “persuasion” include false reports of wrongdoing by the desired seller to the police, attacks on family members, targeting of the family’s livelihood, and other means which when applied consistently and with state co-operation, can make a family’s life a living hell. It is not unheard of that after five years of such pressure the huge amounts of money that the settlers offer for the houses are accepted and the family moves far away. To call it “persuasion” is not totally unfit – the settlers persuade in the same way criminal gangs persuade, and in fact they share much in structure and outlook with organized crime.

But what is worst about this article is not the violence of the setters that it covers up, or its unwillingness to discuss the root cause of the dispute in Hebron, which is settler colonialism, but rather the fact that there is no argument for its main point. The Economist will have you believe:

the Israelis have been steadily tightening a physical link between the oldest downtown part of Hebron, where the holiest places are situated, with the modern settlement of Kiryat Arba. The tighter the link, mainly in terms of roads and the contiguity and acquisition of Jewish houses in ancient Hebron, the harder it will be, in the event of a two-state settlement, to remove a Jewish presence.

It’s true that the Israelis have been steadily tightening their presence, but it simply does not follow that this will make it more difficult to get settlers to leave. What the article leaves out is the 5000 IDF troops stationed in Hebron to protect the less than 500 settlers living in the old city. It is massive military force that makes the position of Jews in Hebron strong, and this “tight link” that the Economist speaks about is simply a product of military orders. If the military orders change, if the troops are withdrawn, most of the settlers will leave Hebron. The few that will stay are the armed zealots, who need to make their own Masada and would rather die killing Arabs. There is a role for the Israeli army and the Israeli public to prevent this from happening. To convince armed Zionist zealots that they should accepta  compromise with the Palestinians is not the job of Palestinian society or the Palestinian leadership, but of Israelis.


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