Ramallah, occupied West Bank – In a meeting this week with settlement leaders, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin declared that Israeli settlers had the “right” to build illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Rivlin said he did not think it was a matter of “political debate”, but rather, a “basic fact of modern Zionism”. His comments came amid increased tensions between Palestinians and Jewish settlers.
Earlier this month, at a fundraiser for American citizens in the Israeli settlement of Shiloh, US Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee described the occupied West Bank – which he referred to as “Judea and Samaria”, the territory’s biblical name – as a fundamental part of Israel.
Huckabee, an evangelical Christian, is far from the only American to hold this view. Many evangelicals in the US staunchly support Israel due to their interpretation of biblical history. In July, the New York Times identified dozens of American charities that have regularly contributed to settlements and their expansion over the past 10 years.
I think it's dangerous and it's immoral. It's turning a national conflict into a religious war between the Judeo-Christian world and Islam, and a religious war is the most dangerous one.
In the hills of northern West Bank, Al Jazeera visited an Israeli settlement to discover how American charities operate there.
Southwest of the city of Nablus, Karnei Shomron is a community isolated from its surroundings and guarded by the Israeli military. The houses are made of white stone, part of a modern suburban neighbourhood featuring trees and sidewalks.
The settlement is home to Sondra Oster Baras, an American-born Jew who is the Israeli liaison and director for Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (CFOIC), which was founded in 1995 in the US city of Colorado Springs. CFOIC funds projects for Jewish schools, playgrounds, agricultural programmes, and security and surveillance projects within the settlements.
“Our responsibility [in Israel] is to be in touch with the [settlement] communities. We receive requests from them for funds, which we review,” Baras said. She explained that funds are then awarded based on how donors are willing to assist the community, as well as on humanitarian standards. In 2014, the organisation gave nearly $600,000 to projects in the occupied West Bank.
But according to the United Nations, the Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, and the US also declares them to be illegitimate. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem estimates that there are nearly 125 government-sanctioned settlements, in addition to roughly 100 settlement outposts not recognised by the government, scattered across the West Bank.
CFOIC states on its website that it does not believe the West Bank is occupied territory. Baras told Al Jazeera the last legal document recognised by her community in the West Bank dates back to 1917. The Balfour Declaration, which was written by the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, stated that a “national home for the Jewish people” would be established in Palestine.
On the other side of the West Bank from Karnei Shomron, in the southern city of Hebron, an especially contentious Jewish settlement was built near the old square of the city and now hosts hundreds of Israeli settlers.
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The Hebron Fund, another American-based charity, raises money for education and recreational programmes in the settlements of the city and provides funds to Israeli families who say they have been affected by “terrorism”. It has been estimated the Hebron Fund donated $1.7m to settlements in 2013, but Al Jazeera was not able to independently verify the information, and the organisation did not respond to requests for comment.
Christians United for Israel (CUFI), led by prominent evangelical preacher John Hagee, has also provided funding for projects in the Israeli settlements, and fiercely opposes UN Security Council initiatives condemning settlement expansions. Hagee is reported to have raised tens of millions of dollars since the 1980s for Jewish groups in Israel advancing settlement causes, but little is known about the exact amounts. Like the Hebron Fund, CUFI declined Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
American Christian groups’ relationship with Israel are centred on their understanding of biblical history. CFOIC defends its goals using quotes from the Bible – such as a passage from the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, in which the prophet Ezekiel is told by his God that he “will settle people on [the land] as in the past and will make [them] prosper more than before” (Ezekiel 36:11).
Baras believes that settlements contribute to a modern-day fulfilment of the text. “The land is selected by God and given to the people of Israel, and it’s not some kind of supernatural, spiritual thing,” Baras explained. “It’s a very real thing; it’s real land.”
But Rabbi Ehud Bandel, an Israeli executive board member of the Germany-based International Council of Christians and Jews, believes otherwise. “Human life takes precedence over land,” and over Judaic tradition, he said.
He added that the “colonial mentality of the Judeo-Christian [relationship] is counter-productive. I think it’s dangerous and it’s immoral. It is turning a national conflict into a religious war between the Judeo-Christian world and Islam – and a religious war is the most dangerous one”.
In order to improve Arab-Israeli relations, Bandel advocates for Israel to accept the Arab Peace Initiative, which was introduced in 2002 and calls on Israel to vacate settlements in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights. In return, Arab states would agree to sign a peace agreement recognising Israel.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Reverend Fadi Diab of St Andrews Church in Ramallah said Palestinian Christians are negatively affected by the settlements as well. He urged American Christians who financially support Jewish settlements to “come and see what is going on, and that your support of the settlements is making people suffer. Your contribution is causing suffering, and that’s not Christian”.
Even for those Palestinians who have not had their land confiscated, Diab said the emotional burden is “psychologically devastating” because many roads in the occupied West Bank have been closed due to settlement construction.
Diab supports a one-state solution, in which Palestinians and Israelis adopt a democratic constitution and set aside religious differences. “Religion is not meant to be a state,” he said. “Because when religion becomes the state, the consciousness of that state hibernates.”
Follow Ash Gallagher on Twitter: @beatnikjourno