A Practical Look at Settlements From the Israeli Point of View

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In contemplating the negative effects of the West Bank Jewish settlements on any land-for-peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, we have an obligation to look beyond what we consider just or support as legal to what is politically possible, at least in the foreseeable future. Since, for a variety of reasons, I don’t believe that the U.S. government will put really significant pressure on Israel in the foreseeable future, it is important to examine what a great majority of the Israeli public would agree to, without great difficulty, regarding the settlements.

Incidentally, in Israeli eyes “really significant pressure” means a delay or halt in the delivery of new American weapons, especially aircraft, to Israel. All the rest is of secondary importance.

The last time any such pressure was employed was by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1975 to force then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to a withdrawal of some 20 miles in the Sinai Peninsula. The Israeli public may therefore be forgiven if, after 23 years, with Israel much richer and stronger now than it was in 1975, it does not take a renewal of such steps seriously.

In those circumstances any positive change of Israeli policies on the settlements will have to be undertaken with the help of a strong section of the Israeli public. For evaluation of the chances of such a development one has to ignore the very small groups on the left which strongly oppose the settlements (for example “Peace Now”) and the stronger but still-not-able-to-dictate-policy National Religious Party (NRP), which is totally devoted to settlements.

What is most important are the views of the bulk of the public as represented in the Knesset by about 100 out of 120 Knesset members. This majority includes Likud, Labor and other important parties whose basic views are by now quite similar.

In order to understand their common position, which I will refer to as “the Israeli view” for the sake of brevity, one has to comprehend that the settlements in occupied territories do not appear in the Israeli view as one entity. Israelis draw sharp distinctions among them which usually are ignored outside Israel.

There is first the distinction between the settlements within “Greater Jerusalem” and elsewhere. When speaking of “Greater Jerusalem,” I am using an Israeli urban and social term and I am ignoring the municipal borders of Jerusalem based on the 1967 annexation. I refer, simply, to what ordinary Israelis regard as “living in Jerusalem,” which means living in a place which has good bus connections with West Jerusalem so that one can go by bus for shopping or evening entertainment there and return home by bus before midnight. More than 250,000 Israelis, about 5 percent of the Israeli population, live in such areas beyond the “Green Line” (the cease-fire line of June 1967), while the population of all other West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements (I exclude the Golan Heights from this discussion) amounts to only about 80,000.

The removal of small Jewish settlements can be done, especially by a right-wing government.

Those 80,000, moreover, are not solidly packed in a small area closely connected with a big Israeli city as are the Israelis of “Greater Jerusalem,” but divided into many mostly small settlements. (For example, Kiryat Arba, the religious militant settlement overlooking the West Bank city of Hebron, has fewer than 6,000 inhabitants.)

Even more important is the simple fact that for a long time the majority of Israelis have regarded living in “Greater Jerusalem” as being “normal,” while to live in any of the other settlements is regarded–even by those who regard settling as laudable–as abnormal. Indeed, the small numbers of settlers in all the other settlements, in spite of the money and other forms of government support poured into them for so long, testify to the great unwillingness of the majority of Israeli Jews to settle in the occupied territories, except in the area of “Greater Jerusalem.”

It follows that while it can be predicted that the bulk of Israelis, and the parties representing them, will strongly oppose changes in the area of “Greater Jerusalem,” or concessions on the settlements of “Greater Jerusalem,” the opposition to removal of settlements (especially small ones) outside the area of “Greater Jerusalem” would be much weaker.

No More “Sacred” Grounds

Indeed, even the National Religious Party or the Gush Emunim settlers no longer dare to appeal to the Israeli public to preserve all the settlements on grounds that they are “sacred.” Their appeals, as of December 1997, are limited to their claim that the Palestinian Authority has contravened the agreements it signed with Israel, especially the Hebron agreement, and therefore it should not be granted “concessions” on any issue until it “keeps” those agreements.

The second important distinction which has to be considered is between the settlements themselves and land confiscated (by various dishonest means which I will not discuss here) by the State of Israel and “attributed” to the settlements. It is true that among religious Jews (about 20 percent of Israeli Jews) and, to a lesser extent among traditional Jews (about 60 percent of Israeli Jews), removal of Jewish settlers by Israeli soldiers from their homes will encounter strong emotional and political difficulties.

However, such removals have been carried out previously in 1982 in the settlements of northern Sinai by the government of Menachem Begin under the supervision of Ariel Sharon. Therefore, although the removal of small Jewish settlements will cause great difficulties to whatever government carries it out, it can be done, especially by a right-wing government.

As is well known, at least in Israel, about 70 percent of the West Bank area has been confiscated by Israel. It has become Israeli “state land” held, according to Israeli apartheid laws, solely for the benefit of Jews, whether citizens of Israel or of other countries, and because of that denied to Palestinians. (Even the Palestinians who have collaborated with Israel are denied the right to live on this land or in settlements and so are Palestinian citizens of Israel, even those who have served in the Israeli army.)

However, only about 16 percent of confiscated West Bank areas have been settled, and 54 percent are empty, although formally “attributed” to individual settlements or settlement blocks. For the great majority of Israeli Jews, there is a great difference between returning empty land to its Palestinian owners and dragging Jews out of their homes. The ordinary Israeli Jew, in my view, will agree quite easily to the first act but can be persuaded to agree to an actual expulsion only with difficulty.

It is therefore quite possible, whatever any Israeli government maintains, to begin returning those uncultivated lands to their owners without too much resistance from a majority of Israeli Jews. Such an act would, in my opinion, constitute a better “confidence-building measure” in the eyes of the majority of West Bank Palestinians than any act so far proposed or carried out.

The fact that such an act, relatively easy to carry out, has not been proposed should raise some doubts about the real intentions of all the parties to the Oslo process and its aftermath, but first of all about the real intentions of the Israeli establishment.

Let me conclude by pointing out that I am not discussing here principles or rights but acts which, in my view, are possible in the present situation. Politics is the art of the possible, and although people should be true to their principles they can, at the same time, also try to do what is politically feasible to alleviate suffering and bring some, admittedly insufficient, modicum of justice to a very unjust situation.

(Dr. Israel Shahak, a Holocaust survivor and retired professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is chairman of the Israeli League of Human Civil Rights.)

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