The Atlantic Sends “A Muslim Among Israeli Settlers,” But Forgets to Give Him GPS

The June 2018 issue of The Atlantic includes a feature by Wajahat Ali titled, “A Muslim Among Israeli Settlers.” It’s an 8-part, 9500 word article, with each part dedicated to a different West Bank or Jerusalem neighborhood or town in which Ali talks to the residents.

There are a lot of positives in the lyrically written piece, not least that Mr. Ali attempted this feat at all. I appreciated his candid admissions that for the Muslim Student Association at his alma mater UC Berkeley, “the conflict in the Holy Land superseded all other Muslim suffering,” and that “many Palestinians I encountered [while in the West Bank] think of the people in Tel Aviv as settlers as well.” He directly quoted one of his subjects saying she “wants all the Israelis ‘to go back where they came from.’” It bears noting that Ali has suffered repercussions for writing the piece.

There are, however, some factual problems, and his conclusions are based on some untested assumptions that warrant scrutiny.

In the conclusion of his essay, Ali writes,

Two things stand in the way of actual peace. The first is the yearning of some Palestinians for all the Jews to leave. … But the second problem – perhaps the even bigger problem – is the settlements, and the exclusivist attitude that motivates the people who live in them. A two-state solution is, theoretically, the best in a basket of bad solutions. But given the dismal realities on the ground, what might be better, alas, is a one-state solution that absorbs all the Palestinians as citizens of Israel and gives everyone an equal vote and equal rights.

Ali is not the first, nor will he be the last, to claim that the settlements are the biggest impediment to peace. It’s disappointing, however, that he would make such a claim after having spent so much time meeting and talking with them, and even as he writes that, “as a result of engaging with Zionists, I found that once you allow a space for conflicting narratives, even those that might repulse you, the characters take up room in your mind and your heart. You can no longer unsee or unfeel them.”

The underlying, unexamined assumption that he makes – and to be fair to Ali, it’s a common one – is that Jews won’t be able to live as citizens of the future state of Palestine. If Jews could live peacefully side by side with Palestinians, the settlements would not matter. Settlers living in areas that were to be turned over to Palestine would simply become Palestinian citizens in a final status agreement.

It’s been argued that many settlers won’t want to live in a Palestinian state – and of course that’s true. This argument, however, is a red herring. If that were the real issue, then those that didn’t want to, would have to take it upon themselves to relocate back to Israel.

British anti-extremism commentator Maajid Nawaz has argued,

Speaking during the vote [on UN Resolution 2334 in 2016], America’s ambassador to the UN said, “one cannot simultaneously champion expanding Israeli settlements and champion a viable two-state solution.” …

This is simply false. …

Settlements are illegal [sic]. But why is it that Israel is expected to integrate – and does a reasonable job of including – the 20 percent of its population that is Arab, yet a Jewish presence of 500,000 settlers in any future Palestinian state is deemed “an obstacle” to the two state solution? Are Palestinians assumed to be ethno-fascists? Are they not capable of building a multiethnic state just like Israelis?

But, perhaps it’s true – for whatever reason – that Jews won’t be able to live as citizens of a majority Palestinian Arab state. If that’s the case, then how is it that Ali thinks that a one-state solution will work? Although the exact population figures are in dispute, most people believe that if Israel were to absorb the West Bank and Gaza and grant a return to descendants of Palestinian Arab refugees, Jews would not remain a majority in the country for very long.

In other words, either Jews can live peacefully as a minority in a majority Palestinian Arab state (of any size), or they can’t. If they can, then the settlements should pose no problem, because the existence of settlements is no obstacle to turning sections of land over to become part of a Palestinian state. If they can’t, then – as The Atlantic’s own editor-in-chief has argued – Ali’s preferred one-state option is not really an option at all.

The argument in favor of a single binational state is based on an implicit assumption that Jews will be able to live in peace in a majority Arab state, while the argument that the settlements are an obstacle to peace is based on the assumption that they can’t. Ali has argued both of these contradictory points at the same time.

In addition to this logical flaw, there are numerous factual errors and omissions in the piece. One is to perpetuate the myth of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East prior to the re-establishment of the state of Israel – a myth that is a necessary component of one-state advocacy. Ali writes that Jews and Palestinians “have lived together in the past, eaten each other’s olives, worked each other’s fields, married each other’s family members. Learning to live together again should not be impossible.” In fact, for most of the time that Jews lived as minorities in Arab lands, they were subjected to second-class or “dhimmi” status; a kind of Middle Eastern Jim Crow. As dhimmis, Jews, among other restrictions, “were excluded from public office and armed service … were forbidden to bear arms. … not allowed to ride horses or camels, to build synagogues or churches taller than mosques, to construct houses higher than those of Muslims or to drink wine in public. … not allowed to pray or mourn in loud voices-as that might offend the Muslims. The dhimmi had to show public deference toward Muslims-always yielding them the center of the road.” Jews living as dhimmis in Arab lands were periodically subjected to violence with no recourse.

Moreover, in the entire piece (again, about 9500 words) nowhere does Ali explain that the 1967 war was, for Israel, a defensive war, or how what he describes as the “often-brutal Israeli occupation” came into existence. (In an accompanying video, he makes a vague allusion to it, saying Israel “fear[ed] an attack from the Arab world.”) Nor does he mention (in either the article or the accompanying video) the 2000, 2001, and 2008 Israeli offers of territorial compromise. No matter how many people he interviews, his understanding of the situation – and the understanding of his readers – can’t be complete without an acknowledgement of how this all started, or of Israeli attempts at resolution. While Ali purports to come to a conclusion about how to resolve the situation, it’s impossible to find a way out without realistically considering how they all got in.

The article is artistically framed, at the beginning and at the end, by Ali’s descriptions of his two trips going to the Temple Mount and attempting to pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque. During the first trip, he reports, he is not permitted to enter, the second time he is successful. Although he acknowledges that the site is holy to Jews as well as Muslims, he does not mention the difficulty Jews have going to the same location – or that Jews are forbidden to pray on the Temple Mount at all.

During his second trip, Ali writes that “Abdullah and I entered the Dome of the Rock, passed by women who were offering their prayers, and walked down the steps to the small cave cut into the rock from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven. I offered a prayer, taking my time to appreciate the space.” This same rock is also believed to be the location of the binding of Isaac, and yet, Ali omits that since the start of the Second Intifada in 2000, Jews, Christians, and all other non-Muslims have been barred from the site entirely.

Also erroneous is Ali’s assertion that the West Bank is “legally, Palestine.” From a legal perspective his language doesn’t make any sense, as there has never been a sovereign entity know as “Palestine,” and land cannot legally belong to a non-entity. More to the point, as CAMERA’s Gilead Ini has explained in depth before, there are competing claims over the land, making it “disputed,” and not “Palestinian.”

Other distortions abound. Ali employs a false moral equivalency between settlers and Hamas, ignoring that that Hamas’s official policy continues to embrace violence. He quotes an accusation that Jewish settlers “all carry submachine guns, and they kill our kids,” ignoring that when Israelis commit violent acts against Palestinians, they are prosecuted. This is in stark contrast to the Palestinian Authority’s pay for slay policy which compensates terrorists and the families of terrorists who kill Jews and Israelis. He claims that absorbing Ma’ale Adumim into Israel as part of a peace deal would “effectively cut [the West Bank] in half,” ignoring that all of Ma’ale Adumim is only 31 square miles. While driving around it would certainly be an inconvenience, it would be no more so than the inconvenience for Israelis of driving around the southern portion of the West Bank (for example, to get from the city of Arad to Jerusalem) which juts into pre-67 Israel much farther than Ma’ale Adumin juts into the West Bank.

One of Ali’s interview subjects is Daniel Luria, a spokesman for Ateret Cohanim, a group Ali describes as “help[ing] settle Jews in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and in neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Some 3,000 Jews now live, protected by armed Israelis, in the densely populated Muslim Palestinian areas of the Old City and Silwan.” But, he tells us, “a 2016 survey by B’Tselem found that eviction claims filed by Ateret Cohanim were pending against 81 Palestinian families.” Two important facts are omitted. First, that Jews lived in these areas until Jordan expelled them in 1948. (Photos from the Jordanian expulsion have been reproduced here.) Second, residents have recourse to an independent judiciary, and one-sided accounts from tenants are not always accurate.

Next Ali visits the Al-Amari refugee camp.

The quickest way to tell you’re in a Palestinian neighborhood is to look for clusters of big, unsightly black barrels crowding the skyline. These eyesores store water, which is almost entirely controlled, even in the Palestinian territories, by the state of Israel. Our guide, Ashraf Ehab (I’ve changed his name at his request), told me that some Palestinian residents get water about two days a week.

It’s become increasingly common to blame Israel for water shortages in Palestinian towns. The Amari camp, however, is run by UNRWA, whose website explains, “the camp is located within al-Bireh municipality …. Water and electricity are supplied through the municipality, though these services are at times irregular.” The al-Bireh municipality’s water is supplied by the Jerusalem Water Undertaking, a Palestinian utility created as a successor to the Ramallah and Al-Bireh Water Company in 1963, when the region was controlled by Jordan. Since 1995, the JWU has been under the regulatory authority of the Palestinian Water Authority. Contrary to the claim that Israel deprives Palestinians of water, Israel cooperates with the Palestinians on water issues, and the Israeli water utility Mekorot actually contributes to the JWU to make up a shortfall between the demand and the amount that the JWU is able to supply.

After the Amari refugee camp, Ali visited Qalandiya, where, he says, there was “almost no police presence and scant municipal services. Cans and plastic bottles littered the roads. Trash was caked onto the rocks and dirt. Crushed cars were stacked like pancakes.” Noticeably missing from Ali’s tour, however, was Ramallah. Blogger David Collier, on the other hand, did go there recently, and reported, “there are many affluent neighborhoods, building is taking place everywhere and there are a lot of very flashy cars.” The New York Times has called Ramallah “bustling,” and “sophisticated,” a “home to music, dance and arts festivals,” where “bars and café’s are filled with laughter.”

A hotel in Ramallah, via Google maps.

As in most places, there are wealthy areas under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction as well as poverty-stricken ones. Ali seems to have selectively visited the poverty-stricken ones.

Ali’s penultimate destination is Hebron, which, he tells us, “had a Jewish community until 1929, when the Jews were killed in a riot.” Killed by whom? To Ali’s readers, that will remain a mystery. His claim that the 200,000 Palestinian residents of the city “are penned in by dozens of roadblocks and checkpoints around the city,” is belied by his own map, which shows the vast majority of the city under Palestinian Authority control.  

Ali tells us also about his visit to a Palestinian home in Hebron.

At this Palestinian home, effectively nestled inside the Jewish settlement, we were greeted by Nasreen, a 28-year-old mother of five, whose serious face revealed the spartan toughness needed to survive here. She had moved in 14 years ago, right after she’d married Shadi, now 34, whose family had lived in Hebron for generations. She shared the two-story home with Shadi’s first wife, who stood behind Nasreen, welcoming us with a big smile. Seventeen people live in the house.

While describing his trip to the Western Wall, Ali was fully capable of commenting on women’s rights (“Jewish women have returned to the Western Wall after thousands of years, only to be denied equal rights”). In Hebron, however, it seems that he is so focused on the ten-year old boy in the house who isn’t able to access the basketball court next door, that he is oblivious to the fact this young woman was apparently married into polygamy at the age of 14. In Ali’s story, as is so common, problems within Palestinian society don’t warrant a mention.

Ali should be applauded for going to the settlements and speaking candidly with Jews and Arabs alike. But, there is a selectivity in the information he’s chosen to relay to his audience, which ultimately skews the picture he presents to his readers as well as his own conclusions.