‘Settlers’ an enlightening look at West Bank woes

Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been a troublesome issue for so long, it’s hard to work up much interest in the matter. But “The Settlers,” a documentary about religious zealots there and the complicity of Israel’s government in border violations and human-rights abuses they have committed, provides a fresh and revealing look at the subject.

Combining archival footage and interviews, Israel-born filmmaker Shimon Dotan (“Hot House”) deeply examines the whos, hows and whys of Israel’s settlement movement and its effect on Middle East peace prospects. He focuses on Jewish extremists who have set up homes on the West Bank, who believe that moving into lands outside of Israel’s legally established borders is divinely sanctioned.

Some estimate that as many as 500,000 Israeli settlers occupy the West Bank, a territory that was captured by Israel in the 1967 war but does not legally belong to Israel. The West Bank’s Palestinian population is about 2.7 million.

Dotan traces the history of the settlement movement, beginning with events like Rabbi Moshe Levinger’s stealthy 1968 leading of a settlement party into Palestine. He details how a succession of Israeli governments failed to stop the movement from growing into what journalist Akiva Eldar calls a “monster of half a million people standing in the way of peace.”

The film omits some important information. Dotan doesn’t address the relation of the Holocaust to the birth of Israel in 1948, or the anti-Semitism that, decades earlier, prompted the development of the Zionist movement. He touches mildly on mass expulsion of
Palestinians during Israel’s war of independence. Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t mentioned.

But the film provides an often fascinating journey into a tangle of histories, faiths and animosities. It insightfully shows how zealots pervert the principles of the faiths they represent, and what can happen when a government has the power to prevent extremists from acting illegally but doesn’t do so.

Dotan’s interviewees are an illuminating assortment of settlement pioneers, current settlers and secular thinkers.

Talia Sasson, a former state attorney, describes a commissioned report revealing that the Israeli government had funded the illegal construction of outpost settlements.

Human-rights advocate Dror Etkes characterizes the West Bank settlements, which deprive Palestinians of political rights, as a form of apartheid.

Early settler Sarah Nachshon recalls how she defied orders and walked across military boundaries with her dead baby in her arms so that she could bury the child in an off-limits Jewish cemetery — an act that would result in continued Israeli military presence in the area.

Current settlers display remarkable candor (or perhaps just scary confidence). One expresses no qualms when calling himself a racist who gladly discriminates against Palestinians.

Another states that the settlers have a God-given right to set up homes on all land between the Nile and Euphrates rivers, even though other nations exist there.

This documentary may not brighten your day, but it’s important, enlightening viewing.

The Settlers
Three stars
Starring Moshe Levinger, Talia Sasson, Sarah Nachshon, Akiva Eldar
Written by Shimon Dotan, Oron Adar
Directed by Shimon Dotan
Not rated
Running time 1 hour, 50 minutes
Note The film screens at the Roxie.

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