Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/Getty Images

The Banality of Settlements

Suburbia taken to its logical extreme


“Yuval Neeman, Israel’s Minister of Science and Development and chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Settlements, called most of the West Bank ‘the natural suburbia of the Israeli cities, considering the fact that the 1948-67 border was an artificial line.'”
The New York Times, February 12, 1984

“[Our apartment in Tel Aviv] was a perfect location, but still we longed to move away from the noise and the pollution, and were hoping to recreate our old life at [sic] the American suburbs.”
-Orna Raz, former settler, Times of Israel

“’We don’t feel this is a settlement,’ said Hanfling. ‘We’re in the middle of the country. It’s like Tel Aviv or Ramat Gan.’”
The Washington Post, June 30, 2009

“A garden city has blossomed in the Judean hills.”
Website of Efrat, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank


If you primarily know Israeli settlements through news articles and television reports, you probably imagine that they are all highly militarized communities amid Palestinian cities and towns, people practically on top of each other, smelling what the other ate for breakfast, guarded by soldiers, watched over by observation posts. You probably don’t imagine a bland suburb of identical single-family houses lining neatly manicured streets, interspersed with pizza parlors and bistro bars, bored teenagers talking about sex on the city bus.

There is, of course, a basis in reality for the popular conception. There are numerous outposts of ideological extremists: families living in trailers; masked men with tzitzit tearing up olive groves, assaulting farmers and activists; women accompanying children to the playground with an automatic rifle. The largest settlements, however, which account for a greater proportion of the settler population, are essentially suburban in character, the idea of the “gated community” taken to its formal, perhaps logical extreme. They are the fantasy of comfortable insularity — please don’t step on my lawn — in the middle of the world’s most contentious land dispute. And oddly—surreally—they succeed in implementing this ideal.

They are residents commuting to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and returning in the evening. They are well-maintained parks and little nature trails crisscrossing the community. They are streets lined with trees and flower bushes. They are little commercial centers. They are an MMA studio, a dog grooming business, an ACE hardware store, a Chinese medicine center. They are neighborhoods of uniform architecture, perched on adjoining hills amid a stunning landscape. They are gleaming white houses with red pitched roofs. They are whiter than Tel Aviv’s famed and dilapidated White City.

The pristine conditions contrast sharply with older, pre-1967 Israeli cities, which have largely been left to the elements for the last half-century, their buildings collectively textured like rotting coral, prickly, a patchwork of variegated tan and brown, pockmarked by peeking concrete. Even Tel Aviv, the country’s economic and cultural capital, has not escaped this fate; vast swaths of the city retain this shabby character, despite the recent boom in real estate prices. It is just one of many jarring juxtapositions and contradictions that one encounters visiting the settlements.

Despite their reputation, they are not even uniformly religious. Ariel, the fourth largest settlement in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, has a large Russian immigrant population. You see less kippahs there than you would in “secular” Tel Aviv. Outside the entrance to the settlement was a butcher with Russian signage, frequently an indication, in Israel, that they sell pork.

On a bus in Ma’ale Adumim, the third largest settlement, located outside of Jerusalem, I saw teenagers in tight clothing, teenagers with dyed hair, teenagers grandstanding in ripped jeans, even a guy with a man bun and a sort of keffiyeh: little expressions of aesthetic dissonance and dissent; two teenagers behind me talked about drugs and soccer.

However, like any good suburb, these communities try to neutralize nascent youth rebellion, direct it into something harmless and agreeable. In Ariel, I saw what appeared to be a legal graffiti wall—a surreal counterpart to Palestinian graffiti on the nearby separation wall. Kids in Efrat, another settlement, post parkour videos to YouTube with cheery EDM soundtracks; its residents, young and old, came together to make a “Happy” video in the summer of 2014, ending on a jubilant note: “Hamas won’t beat us!”

A common profile of the “hilltop youth,” a group of settlers in so-called “unauthorized outposts” implicated in numerous incidents of murder, assault, and property damage, is a young man from a suburban settlement, bored of its comforts and looking for something more exciting in life. Youth is a misnomer, suggesting latent innocence—some of them already have families—but the rebellion is perversely recognizable, a revulsion to suburbia’s pervasive sense of unreality, perhaps even a predictable consequence of the suburban model.

The quality of life in suburban settlements, potential for youth insurgency aside, is significantly higher than most Israeli cities. The air is fresh, resplendent of proximate nature. There are numerous places to picnic, opportunities for little hikes. Each house has a spectacular view and its own yard, a rarity for Israel, and some even have lawns, an extravagance. Although some neighborhoods are less developed and the housing a bit shabbier, there are none of the hulking apartment blocks that define the landscape of most Israeli cities, concrete sloths in progressive states of deterioration, proudly displaying their scars, sublimating a sense of degradation and desperation to their surroundings, to their residents.

These settlements were perhaps the cheeriest places I have been in Israel. There were no conflagrating arguments, no screaming on the bus, no public breakdowns, no beggars. They were almost completely lacking a common Israeli character: the middle-aged to elderly man or women, manifestly shipwrecked on the rocks of life, profoundly stolid in their suffering. Their residents just seemed happy, although perhaps this was a projection on my part, a classic suburban delusion.

If you can abstract the political context, it’s not difficult to see the appeal: fresh air, better housing, the sharper edge of life dulled to a gentle prick. Of course, most of us can’t do that. The decision to live there is itself a political statement from our perspective; that is, as foreigners.

For many Israelis, however, that is not the case. Unless you regularly read Haaretz, about five percent of the population, it is likely that you almost never read (or hear) about the occupation. You read (or hear) about murders or terrorist attacks or some incident in the “territories,” but almost never within the greater framework of “occupation.” Even the Hebrew words for settlers and settlements, mitnahal’im and hitnahlut, are derived from a biblical term meaning to dwell on one’s national patrimony. However, most Israelis probably don’t think of Ariel or Ma’ale Adumim as settlements; they are simply Israeli cities. And within the suburban settlements, that political context is not a prominent aspect of your daily lived experience, despite being only a few minutes down the road.

Walking around these settlements there is no sense that you are there experiencing the occupation; that you are an occupier; that you are part of a widely condemned violation of the Geneva Conventions. The violence of enforced separation has essentially been rendered invisible. You don’t see many soldiers, no guard towers, and the security checkpoint at the entrance, employing private security guards, is a quick scan of the eyes and a nod of the head. Outside of Ariel I saw many soldiers at a bus stop, but they were waiting for the bus, not guarding it.

Even the green line, the demarcation of Israel’s pre-1967 borders, reverently discussed by international observers, is largely invisible—if you are Jewish. You pass back and forth across it and barely register a difference, excepting, occasionally, a small security checkpoint, really a formality—if you are Jewish. The security was invisible for me, as it is for the residents, because we are Jewish. The settlements, like the classic suburb, impose an idyll through formal and informal segregation.

As the Israeli architect and intellectual Eyal Weizman discusses in Hollow Land, “community settlements” are registered as cooperative associations, allowing them a proprietary admissions process. They can expel members for failing to meet community regulations, such as properly heeding ideological, social, or religious norms. But in practice this is used to exclude Palestinians with Israeli citizenship from living in these communities, ensuring that they are Jewish-only.

To the extent that Palestinians enter your formal consciousness at all, they are usually viewed by proxy, from rear windows or backyard vistas, literally an element of the landscape, the hardscrabble village across the way, perhaps even perversely affirming some imagined biblical character. The Palestinian villages appear boxy, spontaneous, half-finished, water marks streaking concrete facades like smeared mascara. They look desiccated, half-abandoned. There are reasons for that—Israeli authorities intentionally restrict their development—but it creates a striking visual contrast. Ironically, the Palestinian villages, with their grey hue, look like they were made from the stone that naturally juts out of the hillsides, an organic creation of the landscape, while the settlements, whose residents claim deeper historical roots to the land, look like an alien imposition with their pervasive red roofs.

Palestinians—living, breathing—aren’t completely absent from the settlements. They are clipping the roses, sweeping the dead leaves. They are building the houses. They maintain the suburban façade, create the suburban façade. But even their sparse presence—reinforcing an insider-outsider dichotomy—produces a quintessentially suburban dynamic.

The interpersonal distance should not obscure the settlements’ profound effect on Palestinian life. Four decades of settlement building and attendant policies have pushed the Palestinian population into a series of densely-populated urban islands, their development stymied by surrounding settlements, isolated from one another by roadblocks and other impediments to freedom of movement, even nominal sovereignty often hinging on a whim.

Although the messianic nature of the settlements is frequently emphasized in media depictions—not without reason—their true roots lie in Israeli military strategy. The hilltops for the initial settlements, many of which became today’s suburban mega-settlements, were chosen in close consultation with military leaders. These settlements hug strategic roads, occupy commanding heights—and choke off the development ambitions of Palestinian cities, frequently separating and sequestering historically interdependent communities from one another. Ariel, for example, stretches along an important east-west route, ringing in the Palestinian city of Salfit and severing it from a group of economically-dependent villages to its north.

The Israeli army remains the most important conduit for settlement expansion. It builds infrastructure, such as a cell phone tower, which becomes the focal point of a so-called “unauthorized outpost”—then connects said “unauthorized outpost” to the electrical grid and water supplies. It declares an attractive plot of land a “live fire zone,” ostensibly for military training, clearing the way for its annexation to an existing settlement. It enforces security barriers banning Palestinians from coming within a certain distance of a settlement, which, in addition to disrupting daily routines, often portends further expansion. And it is the ultimate arbiter of the settlements’ formal segregation: the Palestinians building a house in a settlement and the family that will one day call it home live under separate legal systems.

Informal segregation, as a mechanism of conformity, is built into the settlement’s planning and layout. Weizman writes that the settlements’ spatial arrangement, roads and houses hugging the ridges of a hilltop with public spaces and services in the middle, creates “an axial visibility oriented in two directions: out and down, towards the surrounding landscapes; and in and upwards, a gaze folded in on itself, overlooking the common public spaces and homes of the other members of the community.” This spatial orientation, a sort of panopticon, utilizes the communal gaze to further enforce the settlements’ behavioral and social norms.

The settlements’ residents, as a result, tend to become more ideological with time, drawn deeper into communal norms by habit and ritual. The settlements are, of course, an inherently ideological project. The original residents were almost certainly motivated by ideological convictions, living in trailers and tents in what would become today’s suburban settlements—today’s trailers are tomorrow’s suburbia. But a significant proportion of settlers were initially motivated by the desire for a higher quality of life at an affordable price.

This is a direct consequence of government policy. There are numerous incentives to entice prospective residents. The Ministry of Housing gives grants and low-interest loans to new home buyers. The Ministry of National Infrastructure lowers development costs and leasehold fees, artificially deflating the cost of housing. Industrial zones in the West Bank offer companies lower income and council taxes, providing those residents with well-paying jobs. And every year an enormous amount of money is transferred to these communities through opaque budgeting processes, further subsidizing their development and quality of life, even though they are relatively wealthy.

In addition to direct subsidies, there are indirect benefits. A bus ticket from Tel Aviv to Ariel costs only 9.50 shekels (around $2.50), about half the price of a trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a similar distance. A bus ticket from Jerusalem to Ma’ale Adumim, a thirty to forty minute trip, costs less than a Tel Aviv local bus. Commuters use special roads, for Israelis only, for Jews only essentially, so there is no worry of a traffic jam delaying a family dinner, no worry that you may run into an army checkpoint.

A constructed uniformity of experience further dims residents’ consciousness of the implicit political context. The settlements are visually integrated into Israel—there is no insinuation of a distinct disconnect from the broader society. There are the same pharmacies, the same lotto kiosks, the same health care centers, the same bus stops, the same recycling receptacles, the same signage of a running man whose purpose I’ve never understood; they ride the same buses; their children wear the same uniforms to school.

When settlers are asked by (foreign) reporters about what it means to live in a settlement, in the West Bank, on Palestinian land, they usually respond with some variant of, “This is Israel.” I used to think this was deliberately obtuse, willful intransigence to avoid the deeper question. I still think it is some of that, but now I understand it as something more: from the myriad perceptional interactions that constitute residents’ daily life, it really is Israel; very little they see or experience indicates otherwise: “This is Israel” is, from their perspective, actually a pretty rational answer.

The emergence of West Bank settlements as Israel’s suburbia is not an incidental outcome of disparate forces. The process was frequently chaotic and diffuse, but it broadly conformed to an overarching vision, made possible by abundant government resources. As early as the 1980s, Israeli politicians were already talking about the settlements as the country’s “natural suburbia.” The architects tasked with bringing this idea to reality often brought relevant experience to bear: Thomas Leitersdorf, the architect who planned Ma’ale Adumim and Immanuel, another settlement, started his career working on suburbs in the United States—and his 1978-1978 plan for Ma’ale Adumim set a standard for future settlements.

But it is this idea that also necessitated the physical decline of Israeli cities inside the Green Line, most prominently Tel Aviv’s White City, a UNESCO-designated collection of modernist architecture that is still in shameful condition despite renovations efforts. Israel is one of the great producers of new towns in the world; not outgrowth or sprawl, but distinct, planned communities. It has been a driving force of government policy since the state’s founding, beginning with the tent camps and “development towns” of the 1950s and 1960s where new immigrants were forcibly absorbed. Even with a relatively stable population, new communities are constantly under development, on both sides of the Green Line.

It costs a lot of money, of course, to build an entirely new community, especially when various subsidies must be maintained on top of the construction expense. This naturally draws resources away from maintaining or improving older, established communities, leading to atrophy and dilapidation, spurring exodus, precipitating and providing the rationale for more new communities—“an entropy of accelerating deterioration” in the words of the Israeli architect and historian Zvi Efrat.

“New Towns are doomed to quickly grow old, drained and partially abandoned, in [the] face of a newer town with ever more enticing tax exemptions, ever more seductive sunsets and ever more indulging infra-structures,” he writes in “The Politics of New Towns in Israel,” concluding that “towning, at least in Israel, is always also a cover up operation for an indirect yet highly effective process of urbanicide.”


Rabinsky House, Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv, as one of the country’s oldest new settlements, the altneustadt, was particularly susceptible, in theory, to this reactionary chain. The movement to preserve and renovate the White City was an attempt, in some ways, to break the positive feedback loop. It has probably had a greater success in this regard than it has in actually refurbishing the White City, but the long-term fate of the project, it seems, is inextricably linked to that of the settlements.

Tel Aviv and the settlements are usually positioned as polar opposites in popular discourse. One is more secular and one more religious; one is more left and one more right. It is a handy dichotomy, no matter which side of it you are on, a metonym to diagnose all that is right or wrong in the country. But there is a surprising connection between them.

According to Weizmann, Leitersdorf characterized his paradigmatic plan for Ma’ale Adumim as a “garden city,” the late 19th century ideal that city planner Patrick Geddes envisioned and laid out for Tel Aviv, originally conceived as a suburb for Jewish residents of nearby Jaffa, a European-style retreat from its Oriental atmosphere. Efrat, another settlement, explicitly advertises itself as a garden city. Most of the settlements are also based on the same morphological principles that Geddes utilized in his design for Tel Aviv. The germ of Tel Aviv’s planned utopia finds its contemporary expression in the settlements, the supposed antithesis to all it represents. Their residents may dress differently, vote differently, but the seemingly nonsensical curves of their streets are based on the same principle.