West Bank settlers are an existential liability to Israel
It would be unjust and inaccurate to lump together all the Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and treat them as one and the same. It would be wrong to do so in terms of their reasons for living on occupied Palestinian land, implying that they all share the same ideological creed, zeal of their affinity to this piece of land or approach to their Palestinian neighbors and future resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Equally important for the future of Israel is the difference in how they relate to the Israeli society that lives within the Green Line. On the one hand, they can be seen as a part of the Israeli society that serves as a mere colonial outpost, ensuring that in any future peace agreement some parts of the West Bank will remain part of Israel or as a deliberate Israeli spoiler of the two-state solution. On the other hand, an argument can be made that, during the five decades of this settlement project, the settlers have developed their own separate identity from the rest of Israel, but one which still utilizes the power of the state. They cynically exploit the sympathy they enjoy among many and apathy among others in Israeli society to advance their own interests, which are not necessarily aligned with the country as a whole.
At present, the Jewish settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is in the region of 650,000, scattered among hundreds of settlements and neighborhoods. This amounts to more than 7 percent of the Israeli population, roughly translated to eight or nine seats in the Knesset. In the delicate, even fragile, fabric of Israeli politics, it gives the settlement movement disproportionate power and influence — especially considering its determination and the canny way it operates within the parameters of the political system.
Jewish settlers in the West Bank are far from being homogenous in almost any socioeconomic or political aspect. Religiously, they vary between Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and secular; some settlements are rather affluent while others, especially the outposts, are struggling economically. Ideologically, many of them are economic migrants, representing various shades of nationalism, who enjoy favorable financial benefits and disproportionate government investment in infrastructure compared to any other part of the country within Israel proper. This provides them with a higher standard of living, in many cases within commuting distance of their workplaces inside the Green Line, which they would not be able to afford otherwise.
In terms of their numbers, they are the biggest group among the settlers and probably the least ideological as well. Generally speaking, these settlers should be regarded as those likely to be more receptive to a compromise with the Palestinians and who might be more inclined to be evacuated for a peace agreement. In most cases, they reside in settlements that are not designed to be dismantled if and when a peace agreement is reached.
There is a second group of settlers that are not entirely exclusive of the previous one. They believe that their presence in the West Bank serves Israeli security interests, enhancing security for the rest of the country and its people. They combine nationalism with — as misguided as it may be — an outlook that Israel’s security is best guaranteed by their physical presence in the West Bank and controlling the Palestinian population there.
Then there is a third group: The most dangerous one for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence and the Israeli democratic system, with its members mainly residing in isolated settlements and outposts at the heart of the West Bank. In many cases, they are located next to big Palestinian towns and villages and attempt to push out the residents of neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah or Silwan and impose their existence on highly populated Palestinian places such as Hebron.
This group of ultranationalists and religious fundamentalists — from where most, if not all, of Jewish terrorist violence against Palestinians and their property originates — represent, in the context of all the dark shades of the occupation, the ugliest of them all. Not only do they present a serious threat to any future peaceful coexistence between Jews and Palestinians, and deliberately so, but they are equally dangerous to the fabric of Israeli security and its fragile democracy.
It is time for Israelis to wake up and totally reject those who, by their behavior, constantly erode any progressiveness from the Israeli society.
Only last week, seven men, most of them from the outposts, were convicted of participating in what infamously became known as the 2015 “wedding of hate,” during which pictures of murdered Palestinian 18-month-old Ali Dawabshe were repeatedly stabbed by guests at a wedding of friends of those suspected — and some of whom were later convicted — of the firebombing that killed Ali and his parents.
This is the group of settlers that Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded 125 others in the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in 1994, belonged to. And it is this same group that attacks innocent Palestinians, burns their cars, cuts down their olive trees and throws Molotov cocktails into their houses, not to mention stealing Palestinian land in defiance of both the Israeli authorities and law.
Israelis can no longer wash their hands of responsibility for the behavior of this group of settlers. After all, they are a monster created by the occupation and by allowing settlements to come into being in the first place. These most extreme elements do not abide by the law and, instead, the law and practices are altered to abide by them and their perverted interpretation of Judaism and Zionism given by their so-called rabbis. If they only followed the Ten Commandments and other Jewish teachings, they would refrain from their violent racist-supremacist behavior.
However, it is the forgiving and sympathetic approach by the state, including the security forces, and the society in Israel that provides them with a tail wind — almost bowing to them, for some obscure social-psychological reasons. They see these extreme elements as the continuation of the early Zionist pioneers and as maintaining the Jewish spirit and flame, while others are simply apathetic. It is time for Israelis to wake up and totally reject those who, by their behavior, constantly erode any progressiveness from the Israeli society: An approach that will only lead to confrontation with the Palestinians and the international community and change the country beyond recognition.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg