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Settling Scores


Before the deluge of the second Intifada, when Israelis and Palestinians were still trying to talk through their differences, they faced three large problems:

1) The future of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which is tantamount to the future of the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state;

2) The future of the Palestinian refugees, namely what the Palestinians regard as the right of the refugees to “return” and settle inside Israel;

3) The issue of sovereignty over Jerusalem, and in particular sovereignty over the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif).

Many Israelis believed that it was necessary to resolve each of these issues and that if they could be resolved together an agreement could be reached with the Palestinians. If they were to reach such an agreement, the Israelis would also have to accept a Palestinian state and arrive at security arrangements with the Palestinians.

However, the second Intifada has made many Israelis lose faith that there is a Palestinian partner with whom these issues can be negotiated. Even if all three issues are resolved, many doubt the conflict will come to an end. For they now believe that an end to the conflict is precisely what the Palestinians cannot accept: the Palestinian grievance is inconsolable.

Among the three issues, the Israelis find that of the refugees the most threatening. For the Palestinians the basic demand for the refugees’ right of return as well as the issue of the Haram al-Sharif remain unchanged. True, the refugees of 1948 who could still literally return are relatively few and relatively old, but this, in the eyes of the Palestinians, does not diminish their rights or those of their families. The same could be said about the Haram al-Sharif: the sanctuary stands as a rock in a sea of constant changes.

The issue of Jewish settlements is different. It is a dynamic problem that keeps changing as the number of settlers and settlements increases and as the locations of the settlements change. What the Palestinians find most worrying is the increase of over 50 percent in the number of housing units as well as in the settler population since the Oslo agreements of September 1993. In September 1993 there were 33,000 family housing units in the settlements. By July 2000, 19,000 units were added (3,000 of them under Barak). At the end of 1993 there were, according to Israeli statistics, some 116,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. In view of the yearly population growth of 8 percent (natural increase and newcomers combined), we can assume that there were about 200,000 settlers at the beginning of the second Intifada in late September 2000, including 6,500 of them in the Gaza Strip. There are altogether 145 official settlements and another fifty “unofficial” ones. The length of the roads that were built for the settlements, and that are used only by the settlers, increased by 160 kilometers between 1997 and 1999.*

The Palestinians, for their part, regard all civilian Jews living in the territories occupied in 1967 as settlers and all the housing units that were built for them as settlements. In the Israeli use of the terms, the neighborhoods of Jerusalem built on land annexed in 1967 are not called settlements and the people who live there are not called settlers. For the Palestinians, however, some 210,000 Jews in greater Jerusalem are, in their view, settlers as well, and they therefore consider that there are a total of about 410,000 Israeli settlers.

The second Intifada made the settlers the prime moving targets for the Pal- estinian guerrilla attacks—“moving,” since most of the attacks on the settlers take place on the roads. There is a division of labor in Palestinian actions. Those inside Israel are carried out predominantly by the Islamic organizations—Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Attacks on the settlements are carried out mainly by Arafat’s various military and paramilitary forces. Even if this division of labor is coordinated, it still displays the ideological difference between the Islamic movement and Arafat’s Fatah movement.

Hamas is the main Islamic movement. It was established during the first Intifada, in 1988. It is deeply involved in communal work, including schooling and medical care, and thus presents a moral challenge to Arafat’s corrupt regime. The Hamas leaders are adamant that Israel should be dismantled altogether; the Jews, as “People of the Book,” are entitled to protection once they have submitted to the authority of an Islamic state. The entire land of Palestine, on which Israel sits, is a Waaf—a Muslim religious entity or “endowment,” not to be subjected to any transaction. It is important to Hamas to demonstrate by terror inside Israel that it does not make any distinction between the part of Palestine that is inside Israel and that which is outside: all parts are Waaf. Thus, for Hamas, Arafat’s negotiations over the Temple Mount were an act of religious transgression. As for the Islamic Jihad, it is a small group inspired by the Shiite revolution in Iran and by the Islamic resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It has no social base and it specializes in suicidal attacks against Jews inside Israel.

One thing is clear: the settlers have been targeted more than others and many of the Israelis killed so far in the Intifada have been settlers. In carrying out the Intifada, the Palestinians have succeeded in making the settlements a central issue. They did not succeed, however, in winning any sympathy for their cause among any significant section of Israeli Jews, not even with those who strongly object to the settlements and the settlers.

The settlers themselves are in a double bind, as soon becomes clear to a visitor to the West Bank. On the one hand they emphasize that for the Palestinians there is no distinction between Netanya, a city in central Israel on the coastal plain, which has been subjected to several terrorist attacks, and the small outlying settlement of Homesh, deep in Samaria. On the other hand, they want to stress their special plight as settlers in a hostile territory. They point out that while they draw most of the Palestinian fire and their lives have become unbearable, other Israelis, as they put it—quoting the hard-liner Uzi Landau, the current minister of internal security—“drink wine and eat cheese” and are indifferent to their suffering. Of course, the blood feud between the Palestinians and the settlers did not start with the second Intifada. During the first Intifada beginning in late 1987, 119 Palestinians were killed by the settlers and their sympathizers. The current Intifada has to a large extent turned into a battle on the roads to the settlements.

With respect to the Jewish settlements, the West Bank, like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided into three parts, or three long strips of land. With a few exceptions, each strip has a different history, a different ideology, and a different type of settler. The first strip of settlements was established in the Jordan Valley (from Kalya, near Jericho, in the south to Mehola in the north). The fifteen settlements there were set up after the war of 1967 and just before the war of October 1973. To develop these settlements the government relied on the traditional Labor Zionist settlement institutions, the kibbutz movement and the moshav movement. The settlements of the Jordan Valley were mostly collectivist settlements in the old style. In the triumphant mood following the 1967 Six-Day War these movements tried to revive their historical mission as the Zionist avant-garde, a mission that had been crucial in creating Israel. The idea was that by creating settlements along the Jordan River, Israel would establish a permanent “security border” there. That the plow, not the sword, would determine borders is an old Labor Zionist article of faith. To install the new settlements, the governments of Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir assigned two prominent ministers who were themselves kibbutz members—Israel Ghalili, a former leader of the Haganah, the clandestine armed organization under the British Mandate, and Yigal Allon, the commander of the Palmach, the striking arm of the Haganah.

The efforts to settle the Jordan Valley coincided with efforts to settle the Golan Heights. The first wave of settlements in both places had the political aim of “maximum security and maximum territory for Israel with a minimum number of Arabs,” i.e., permanently retaining Israel’s territorial gains in places with sparse Arab population. The principle of settling in areas with sparse Arab population was intended to determine where Israelis would settle and where they would not. But the main concern of the effort to establish Jewish settlements in the territories was neither security nor greed but a form of nostalgia, a desire to reenact the pioneering experience of the Zionist frontier. Nostalgia, both invented and real, usually contains the same proportions as a whisky and soda: two parts (invented) to one part (real).

If the idea of settling the Jordan Valley was to bring the kibbutz and the moshav movements back to the forefront of Zionism, it failed. The Jordan Valley settlements, in spite of the huge effort invested in them, did not amount to much. Gilgal has 157 residents, Ro’i 127, and Mehola 302. The ideal of the kibbutz proved to be anachronistic for the purpose of settling the territories.

Since 1979 the driving force in settling the second strip, further west in the Jordan Valley, has been the members of Gush Emunim—the Bloc of the Faithful—whose better-known settlements in the second strip are Beit El (population 3,600), Ofra (1,800), Shilo (1,500), Eli (1,500), and Elon Moreh (1,500). The first of these settlements got a start with some help from Shimon Peres, who was then defense minister in Yitzak Rabin’s first government.

The Gush Emunim settlements were presented as a project of hope, intended to uplift the gloomy spirit that gripped the country after the shattering 1973 war. Politically, the settlements were an act of defiance against the 1967 Allon plan, by which Jewish settlements were not to be established in areas of the West Bank that were heavily populated by Arabs, especially around the city of Nablus, which had about 100,000 residents and has some 200,000 now. Not settling there obviously meant conceding those areas to the Palestinians in any future agreements. But for the Gush Emunim settlers, Greater Israel in its entirety is a “Jewish Waaf,” nonnegotiable forever, and the Gush Emunim settlements are often close to Arab villages and towns. The Gush had strong political allies, not only Menachem Begin and Yitzak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, but, more tellingly, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan, who also wanted to destroy Allon’s plan and retain joint control over the entire West Bank with the Kingdom of Jordan.

The settlers of Gush Emunim, for their part, saw themselves as competing with two powerful tendencies: secular Labor Zionism and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. To the secular Zionists they wanted to prove that they, the idealistic religious Zionists, were now taking over the Zionist mission. They would settle the entire “biblical” Land of Israel, replacing the secular movement, which had lost its vitality and whose children had become hedonists living in the present—“nowness”—and lacking roots. The Gush thus aspired to carry on the vital force of the Zionist revolution, and to be the legitimate heirs to the old pioneers of Labor Zionism and the successors of the legendary settlers of Deganya (the first kibbutz, founded in 1909), Nahalal (the first moshav, 1921), and Hanitah (founded in 1938 at the height of the Arab riots, in a region in the Galilee that until then had no Jewish settlements).

  1. *

    The best sources of information on the settlements are the Statistical Abstract of Israel and the reports of the Settlements Watch Team of Peace Now and the B’tselem human rights organization. Peace Now and B’tselem are regarded by the right as suspect, but I have not encountered any significant factual claim by Peace Now or B’tselem that has been successfully contested. In fact, the population map prepared by Peace Now in November 2000 (see illustration) is the one many government officials grudgingly use.

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