Israeli settlers - landlords or squatters?
tony at tlio.org.uk
Thu Dec 27 13:50:36 GMT 2007
Landlords or squatters?
By SHIMSHON ARAD
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
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
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
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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