My entry into the most extensive Israeli settlement established within Palestine happened entirely by accident. I was going to visit a biblical site and had no idea that it was situated in an Israeli settlement in the centre of Hebron, one of Palestine’s biggest cities. The settlement doesn’t even show up on Google maps. When I say in the city’s centre, I mean literally in the middle of the CBD. The old city of Hebron is pretty much the CBD, and the towering walls of the settlement are right beside it. I remember talking with a local as I walked into the old city, asking him why there were nets that covered the whole width of the street as we walked alongside the settlement. He said they had to cover the roads bordering the territory because Jewish settlers were known to throw rocks and rubbish from the walls at Palestinians going about their business.
I felt a weight in my spirit as I passed through the 20-metre-high walls of the settlement, festooned with armed guards. The first two kilometres of my journey into the settlement made me feel like I was in a post-apocalyptic movie. Almost no one walked the streets. The buildings lining the main road showed the tell-tale signs of where Israeli soldiers had evicted Palestinians; windows smashed, doors kicked in, and even bullet holes in the walls of houses which lined the main street. All was eerily quiet. The weight in my spirit grew heavier.
Eventually, I came upon the habited parts of the settlement, where I found some Palestinian children begging in the streets (I have no idea how they were allowed in) and Israeli soldiers everywhere. They watched me closely as the children approached, begging for money.
On my way back out of the settlement, I saw three soldiers having to forcibly hold back a Jewish man from attacking a Palestinian worker, which really threw me. All this added to the oppressive weight that had settled in my heart.
I believe that much of Israel’s progressive occupation of Palestine is motivated by the founding narrative of God’s promise to Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt and give them a land “flowing with milk and honey.” This promise encompasses the entire West Bank where Palestine is now, and I don’t think Israel has ever forgotten this.
Every year Israel annexes more land from Palestinian territory; relentless accumulation in the name of a promise—the promise of land.
I have thought about land a lot since the housing market started to spiral out of control a few years ago. I often think about the sense of entitlement many of us have to our “quarter-acre block” with a white picket fence upon it, including myself, a lot of the time. For many of us, owning land seems to be a given, a desire we have internalised, consciously or not. However, this is not the case for many Māori.
My people come from Taranaki (Ngāti Ruanui in the south and Te Ātiawa in the north). The land we resided in and in which we still live informed our culture, customs, and way of life. Even the spoken language (Te Reo Māori) was created and adapted by our ancestors based on their observations of nature, hearing its many sounds and creating words that reflected their natural environment. To us from Taranaki (and many other Māori, I’m sure), the land is something to which we belong. It does not belong to us. Therefore, without the land to which we belong, we will not survive.
Three days after I returned from the Middle East, I drove to Ihumātao to participate in the protest against land confiscation in our own country, to support an iwi fighting to remain on their own land and, therefore, fighting for their lives. At that time, a building company, Fletchers, were trying to buy land to build housing in an area that the people of Ihumātao consider sacred. When a number of iwi members opposed the sale of this land and blocked the road into the proposed building site to protect it, police were called to evict tangata whenua from their land. As I sat on the frontline to help preserve this land from being desecrated, I couldn’t help but think about how much this struggle for land was like the struggle I had left behind in Palestine, the struggle of Palestinians not to be evicted from their land.
A friend said, “for every institution and organisation, their founding narratives will always endure.” I have come to believe this also applies to nations, especially in the promises given to their people.
One of Aotearoa’s strong founding narratives is this promise of land, the promise of the quarter-acre, and the white picket fence. I believe this founding narrative is one of the reasons why were so obsessed with land and housing right now.
Even with the recent dip in the housing market, it is still one of the most lucrative investments you can make—if you’re able to get your foot in the door. In the last twenty years, house prices have risen by 256%, and it goes without saying that this makes housing far less accessible for those with less privilege. This drastic price increase has led to increased rates of homelessness, forced relocation and yet more Māori alienated from their land due to the increased inaccessibility as first-home buyers.
All of this begs the question—how did the promise of land become one of our founding narratives?
Many of our Pākehā ancestors arrived here fleeing the mass urbanisation and poverty caused by the industrial revolution, with the promise of land. Many were granted free passage by boat, and many gladly took up the opportunity, desperate to escape their circumstances, hoping for the chance of a better life. The Crown and the New Zealand Company (NZC) spurred all of this migration with various policies.
Upon their arrival, many settlers discovered that the land promised to them was either already inhabited or extremely difficult to build upon and farm. This difficulty and disappointment, among many other factors, created tensions between settlers and Tangata Whenua.
The disillusionment many settlers felt about the absence of the land promised to them, combined with the Crown’s attempts to hold up their end of the bargain, as well as the greed of the NZC, instigated a complex but swift process of annexing land from Māori section by section.
Some historians, including Ranginui Walker, argue that, although war and violence contributed to land confiscation, the bigger culprit was the pen and paper. Legislation such as the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 and the Native Lands Act 1865 allowed the forcible removal of any who “opposed” the Crown. The Acts also allowed the sale of land by an individual rather than the collective people who belonged to that land. It is hard to overstate how devastating that was for my people.
In light of this history, it doesn’t surprise me at all that we are preoccupied with land, perhaps even an obsession. Those of us who own some do everything in our power to hold on to it. Those who don’t have any spend their days declaring in frustration how impossible it is to obtain.
I believe that our obsession for land is a legacy handed down to us from generation to generation since the arrival of the first Pākehā ancestors—for some, it is the unfulfilled promise of land; for others, it is living in the fulfilment of this same promise. My people might call this “whakapapa”—that which is passed down to us by our ancestors.
It’s easy to look at the situation in Palestine and assume we’re not in the same position. However, I think we subscribe to a similar kind of colonisation, maybe not with guns and walls, but certainly through legislation, an over-inflated housing market, our sense of entitlement to the personal ownership of land, and all the greed that comes with it. In light of all this, I believe land and housing are one of the biggest idols of this age. And the Christian Church, of which I am a part, is just as complicit as anyone else in this.