Israel is rapidly expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This Australian man is among them
Jewish Australian Michael Lourie spent years building his dream home set amongst sprawling mountains, with views stretching all the way to the sparkling Dead Sea.
He describes it as an eco-villa constructed using raw materials like hemp. His home and his community are a source of pride and joy.
But Mr Lourie’s paradise has been built in the West Bank — the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel — and under international law, the home is illegal.
Mr Lourie is what’s commonly known as a settler.
Settlements are overwhelmingly Jewish communities built in Palestinian territories captured by Israel in 1967.
Mr Lourie’s settlement is called Pnei Kedem, and not only does he live there, but he also founded it — the only Australian to do so.
Back in 2000, he was looking for land in the West Bank when he came across the block, near another settlement, with a view of the Dead Sea and “fell in love with it straight away”.
Along with some other families, Mr Lourie set up some mobile homes before building permanent structures, without permission from Israeli authorities.
For years Mr Lourie applied for retroactive approval for some of the buildings on his land, and this year Pnei Kedem was formally recognised as a settlement by Israel.
It includes plans for 120 homes, and Mr Lourie says it currently houses about 70 families, including a senior cabinet minister in Israel’s ultra-nationalist government.
He says most of the people who live there are religious, right-wing Jews, who believe they have a right to settle in the West Bank.
“There’s a negative connotation to the word settlers, it’s upsetting,” Mr Lourie said.
“The majority of people who are so-called settlers are law-abiding citizens who are very right-wing, who believe that the land belongs to them, who believe that we should be here.
“And I took the route of saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to try and do something and improve the Jewish population over here in Judea and Samaria.'”
Israeli and international law are at odds over West Bank settlements
Judea and Samaria is how religious Jews refer to the parcel of land known internationally as the West Bank.
Like most settlers, Mr Lourie believes the land was given to him by God and that Palestinians have no territorial claim, including for a future Palestinian state.
“It’s a false statement to say, ‘it’s land that is not yours’,” he said.
Israeli law defines settlements as legal — despite the International Court of Justice finding the communities are in breach of the Geneva Convention and international humanitarian law.
Jerusalem-based human rights group B’Tselem argues the sole purpose of settlements is to permanently establish Jewish Israelis on land that Palestinians want as a future state.
B’Tselem researcher Drot Sadot said Palestinians were often driven off or deprived of their land by settlers.
“The international law is very clear. You cannot take citizens of an occupier and move them to an occupied territory — it is illegal,” she said.
“Settlements are one of the most efficient ways for Israel to take over Palestinian land.
“It also limits their freedom of movement because around the settlements there is security and the Israeli Army guarding entrances, and there are roads that they can’t go through.”
Israel’s most right-wing government in the country’s history, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is embarking on a plan to drastically increase settler numbers in the West Bank.
In the first six months of 2023, more housing units have been approved than any other year in the last decade, according to anti-settlement activist group Peace Now.
Last month, the Australian government issued a rare statement expressing grave concern over the new settlement housing approvals, and calling on Israel to reverse the expansions.
Peace Now estimates there are 465,400 Israelis currently living in the West Bank across 132 settlements, excluding East Jerusalem.
Palestinians nearby accuse settlers of intimidation
Palestinian man Ahmad Abu Shanab owns land bordering the Pnei Kedem settlement.
He is often too afraid to visit his own property, but he took the ABC to see his olive and almond trees.
Shortly after arriving at his land, a settler with a loaded M16 assault rifle slung over one shoulder approaches, asking what Mr Abu Shanab is doing there.
The settler calls the Israeli Army, who do not accuse Mr Abu Shanab of committing any offences but demand to see his identification papers.
Mr Abu Shanab says he regularly experiences this kind of intimidation when visiting his land near the settlement.
“All the time [they] make a problem for us. Because they want to see this land without Palestinians, but Palestinians are here,” he said.
“They sometimes come, many settlers, and attack us or try to quarrel with us, or create problems with us because they want us to not enter our land and not come to our land.”
After half an hour, the army and settler leave, but Mr Abu Shanab is shaken by the interaction.
The soldiers and settler decline to be interviewed.
‘The Jewish people have come home’
According to B’Tselem, intimidation and attacks against Palestinians have been increasing in frequency and intensity.
This year, Palestinian cars have been set alight, and homes also burned to the ground.
Some settler attacks have been described as retaliation for Palestinian-led violence.
In March this year, settlers rioted in the Palestinian village of Huwara, avenging the killing of two Israeli brothers by a Palestinian gunman.
During the settler rampage, dozens of homes were torched and a local Palestinian was shot dead.
Ms Sadot said the escalation in settler violence aligned with the election of Israel’s right-wing government, which includes several cabinet ministers who are settlers themselves.
“Those are not a few bad apples, as some would like to say,” she said.
“We’re talking about settlers coming towards Palestinians, to their homes, to their land, invading their homes and then attacking them violently.
“It is a fully supported and funded phenomena by the state.”
Mr Lourie condemns the violent attacks on Arabs living in the Palestinian territory.
But he stands firm in his belief that his home wasn’t built on Palestinian land, and he supports the expansion of settlements across the West Bank.
“The Arabs can stay here as long as they understand that the Jewish people have come home.”Article link: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-07-30/australian-settlers-in-israel-west-bank/102642486
Article source: ABC | Middle East correspondent Allyson Horn in the West Bank | 30.7.23