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Post Six-Day War, Many Israelis Are Unaware Of Settlement History


Israel's 1967 war with its neighbors lasted only six days. Those six days 50 years ago this week have now touched half a century of Middle East history. Ever since then, Israel has occupied the West Bank of the Jordan, territory that Palestinians want for a future state. Today hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in settlements on that land. In theory, Israel would have to give up much of that land in a peace settlement.

But reporter Dan Ephron says that would be hard now. Having reported on Israel for many years, he says Israelis think of settlements as just a normal part of Israel.

DAN EPHRON, BYLINE: And that misperception, let's say, between the way Israelis view the settlements and the way Palestinians view them or really the rest of the world views them because the rest of the world views these towns as part of a territory that is at the very least contested - that that gap said something about where Israelis are 50 years on and what the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians - what the prospects are.

INSKEEP: Well, what did you find as you went to the settlements you were able to reach?

EPHRON: Some of them over the years have evolved to become fully normalized towns and cities with swimming pools, with concert halls, with shopping malls. There's a new two-story shopping mall in Ariel.

INSKEEP: The settlement you mentioned, Ariel, where you spent some time - there are these narrow streets, and it looks kind of charming, almost European.

EPHRON: Yeah, a town of about 20,000. If you ask Israelis, where is Ariel, those who know it's in the West Bank will say it's just over the line that separates Israel from the West Bank. It's almost a, let's say, an invisible line because there's no road sign that tells you as you're driving out there that you're now crossing into the West Bank. It's about 13 miles deep in the West Bank.

And during successive peace talks over the years between Israelis and Palestinians, Ariel has always been a vexing obstacle because it's a large settlement. It's difficult for an Israeli leader to commit to the idea of evacuating it. But it's so deep in the West Bank that it would be almost impossible for Palestinians to have a viable state as long as Ariel continues to exist there.

INSKEEP: Because then trading away Ariel would be like the United States trading away part of Ohio or - pick your state. We just wouldn't do that.

EPHRON: Exactly right.

INSKEEP: When you say that Israeli attitudes toward the settlements have shifted, do you believe this has been an official effort, an official campaign to change the way the public thinks about the settlements?

EPHRON: Look. I think it's pretty clear that this has been an official campaign. And I have to say, you know, I reported in Israel off and on for 20 years. I noticed it anecdotally, this kind of shift of perception where Israelis come to view the settlements as part of Israel not even out of ideology but just out of a sense that this has been a town that they have heard about so often, where Israeli soccer teams play in the national league from that town, where the weather maps and Israeli newspapers show that town without showing the green line. It has just become in the Israeli consciousness part of Israel.

And I think historians who have gone back and looked at decisions that were made after 1967, including decisions about obfuscating the green line, about changing the terminology from the West Bank to Judea and Samaria, have found these decisions in official documents.

INSKEEP: What are the implications for peace if the Israeli public, the voting public in this democracy, generally perceives a lot of the West Bank or at least the settlements to be formally part of Israel?

EPHRON: I think when Israelis perceive these communities as part of Israel, when you ask Israelis where Ariel is and they say it's with in the green line; it's within the borders of the state of Israel, I think then the road to peace becomes longer and more treacherous.

INSKEEP: How have Palestinian attitudes, based on your reporting, shifted toward the settlements or toward the territory that remains to them in the West Bank?

EPHRON: I think as they watch settlements expand, there is a feeling that the thing that they're bargaining for, the thing that they're trying to achieve - independence, their own state in the West Bank - is shrinking. And so this has caused a feeling that these peace talks over the last 20 or 25 years - this process of settlement has foreclosed on this idea that they can never have that. You know, we're talking about this idea that as the settlements expand, the prospects of peace contract. I think that is exactly the way Palestinians view it.

INSKEEP: Reporter Dan Ephron, thanks very much.

EPHRON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Ephron