Israeli settlers - landlords or squatters?

Gerrard Winstanley tony at
Thu Dec 27 13:50:36 GMT 2007

Landlords or squatters?

Lords of the Land
By Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal
Nation Books - 576 pages; $29.95 

As ambitious scholarly studies go, this looks like a 
comprehensive and critical volume about one of the most 
controversial issues in Israel - the settlements. 

The writers are known from their journalistic work. Undertaking a 
full-fledged book obviously requires more discipline than 
producing a weekly column, though one has to admit that their 
indictment of the settlements beyond the Green Line appears to 
be well substantiated. What interests us on this occasion, 
however, are not their views but their source material - the facts 
and figures and the relevant statements on record. We can 
endorse or challenge the views of the authors, but can't disavow 
the facts. 

Let us first cite some of the basic statistics. At the end of 2006 
the number of settlers stood at 270,000. To this we may add 
some 220,000 in neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem 
beyond the Green Line. A report published last year based on 
official data indicated that more than 40 percent of settlement 
land had been privately owned by Palestinians, and that 130 
settlements were built entirely or in part on land defined by Israel 
as "private." 

The settlers took control of these lands, but it was the state that 
confiscated them. The expansion of the settlements during the 
past 40 years would not have been possible without massive aid 
from state institutions, and the government's legal sanction. Nor 
could it be achieved, say the authors, without "expedient and 
effective ties" between the settlers and the military. 

We find material reminding us that the first "legal" settlements 
began between 1967 and 1977 - years of Labor-led 
governments. In theory, most of the Labor Party opposed the 
idea of settling in the West Bank and Gaza, but for political 
convenience and sentimental feelings - as well as wavering 
leaders - the pressure of the nationalists prevailed. 

It's not surprising that the settlements flourished during the 
Likud's time in office. After all, this was the Likud's beloved 
ideology, whatever price the country would have to pay. But the 
Labor-Likud rotation governments between 1984 and 1988 in 
effect followed Likud policy. All the subsequent governments 
have approved new settlement construction, though ostensibly 
only within the boundaries of existing settlements. 

Yet Menachem Begin himself felt the need to declare that "Judea 
and Samaria must not be annexed." Declarations apart, settling 
scores of new sites each year in contravention of both 
international law and the pledges given to US presidents was 
somehow perceived as kosher. 

While Begin was at Camp David in 1978 negotiating a peace 
treaty with Egypt, he was desperately searching for a magic 
formula to find a compromise that would allow both peace and 
the continued establishment of settlements. Ariel Sharon, then 
the agriculture minister, was pushing the settlement drive, but 
when Begin called him from Camp David for suggestions on 
balancing peace prospects and the settlements, Sharon was 
reported to have said "peace was preferable." But this was a 
sheer deception, perhaps the first sign of Sharon's ability to 
break from the long-established settlement obsession a quarter 
of a century later. 

Gush Emunim, as is well known, had a different agenda; it was 
imbued by messianic fervor to build more and more settlements, 
perceiving such expansion as a sacred mission. Two days after 
the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt - which included a 
commitment to establish an autonomy for the inhabitants of the 
West Bank and Gaza Strip, a promise to lift military government 
in the territories, and a "freeze on all settlements" for a period of 
three months - Gush Emunim embarked on its largest operation 
thus far. This time, say the authors, the entire settlement lobby 
was mobilized - "a real battle cry." 

One of the interesting observations the book reveals is the 
gradual but steady shift of Likud's settlement advocates to a 
more moderate and pragmatic approach. Since most of them 
had no claim to speak on behalf of God, their position was that of 
secular nationalists. But when they gained power for the first 
time, they were exposed to international reality, with all its 
complexities. Growing criticism of Israel's policy was not only 
unpleasant, but sparked acts against the nation's vital interests. 
Likud leaders thus started to be aware of the cost of isolation, 
and discovered that the demographic prospect of having to cope 
with a country full of hostile Palestinians was unbearable. This 
new experience brought minister of defense Ezer Weizman to 
declare that "now is the time to engage in fortifying existing 
settlements, not in building new ones." 

Dan Meridor was the other minister to show signs of settlement 
heresy, and as we know, Sharon made an even more dramatic 
deviation in 2004, which led to the unilateral disengagement 
from Gaza. 

In the past year or two, we have all witnessed how formerly 
zealous Likud loyalists such as Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni 
have, step by step, dropped the orthodox settlers' ideology and 
are now hoisting the flag of pragmatism and moderation. The 
hard core of the settlement lobby is left mainly to the fanatics. 
Most of the traditional nationalist verbiage relies these days on 
the "security" vocabulary, not on God. Since Binyamin Netanyahu 
as prime minister negotiated with Arafat on the basis of dividing 
the land, little fervor is left in his camp - the secular proponents 
of Greater Israel. 

The book offers a comprehensive and mostly balanced narrative 
that has not been available before. For the believers in the 
sacredness of the doctrine of keeping all the settlements, the 
book is a serious challenge. For those who accept that an 
eventual peace agreement would have to be based on the 
coexistence of the two conflicting national aspirations, the book 
provides ample material arguments. 

The writer is a former ambassador to Mexico and the 

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