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Israel’s West Bank Settlements: A Still-Reversible Mistake

Lawrence Bush
May 5, 2008

by Philip Mendes
I have supported a two-state solution in the Middle East for twenty-five years, as the only way to meet both the minimum security needs of Israel and the minimum national aspirations of the Palestinians. For me, ‘two states’ has always meant the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign Jewish state within, roughly, its pre-1967 borders, and equally the right of the Palestinians to an independent state within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This means no coerced Jewish settlements within Palestinian territory, and no coerced return of Palestinian refugees within Green Line Israel.
Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, I have become far more critical of Palestinian beliefs and actions. The violence and extremism reflected in constant attacks on Israeli civilians via Qassam rockets and suicide bombings, and the growing power of the religious fundamentalist Hamas, stand as significant barriers to any conflict resolution. Nevertheless, I have not changed my fundamental opposition to the Jewish settlements. In my opinion, they remain a significant obstacle to peace and reconciliation, irrespective of anything the Palestinians say or do. This is not to deny that Israel has legitimate military and security concerns in the territories unless or until a lasting peace settlement is negotiated.
Over the years, many arguments have been advanced in an attempt to justify the West Bank settlement project: that Israel has a right to expand its territory due to having fought the 1967 Six Day War in self-defense; that Jews have a religious duty to establish colonies in the ‘liberated’ Biblical heartland; that Jews have the same right as any other people to settle anywhere in the world; that Jewish settlements do not dispossess any Palestinians; that Palestinians do not constitute a real nation anyway; that dismantling settlements would only strengthen Palestinian hostility to Israel. The influence of these arguments within Israel and the Jewish diaspora has served to obscure the very dire consequences of the settlement project, which include the following:
Political: Many of the settlements were established in or near densely populated Palestinian areas in order to foreclose the very possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state and a two-state solution to the conflict. Their presence has provoked constant violence between Palestinians and the Israeli army, and caused much unnecessary loss of life on both sides.
According to Shlomo Gazit, the former Israeli coordinator of activities in the occupied territories, the settlements were planned to “safeguard the Greater Israel vision. Therefore, as many settlements as possible had to be built. They had to be spread throughout the land, leaving no space or possibility of establishing autonomous Palestinian territorial units . . . They became the main stumbling block on the way to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement” (Trapped Fools: Thirty Years of Israeli Policy in the Territories, 2003). Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami has labelled this practice “the most absurd march of folly that the State of Israel has ever embarked on” (Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy, 2006).
The American Jewish political theorist Michael Walzer has controversially argued (in Dissent magazine) that the settlers are the “functional equivalent” of the Palestinian terrorist groups. He acknowledges that the “settlers are not murderers, even if there are a small number of terrorists among them. But the message of settler activity to the Palestinians is very much like the message of terrorism to the Israelis: we want you to leave, or we want you to accept a radically subordinate position in your own country.”
Legal: The settlements contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention, which precludes an occupying power from settling its own citizens in territory taken by military force. The settlements also violate the legal sovereign right of the Palestinians to determine the population of their own territory.
Moral and Ethical: The extensive confiscation of private Palestinian land to build settlements involves a second dispossession for the Palestinians, many of whom had previously fled or been forced to leave their original homes inside Israel in 1948. Moreover, a significant minority of settler extremists engage in vigilante behavior involving verbal and physical abuse of the Palestinian civilian population. This includes the destruction and theft of olive trees and other property, and some instances of violent assault and murder. According to the respected Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, from late September 2000 to the end of 2004, settlers killed thirty-four Palestinians in the territories — in many cases, not in self-defense.
Economic: According to a 2003 report by Ha’aretz and a more recent study by Israeli Ynet News, the expense of the settlements is about $700 million annually and has amounted to $14 billion since 1967. The Israeli government spends about ten times more money on each settler than on the other 97 percent of Israeli citizens. Settlers are provided with a 7 percent income tax break, large housing grants, subsidized mortgages, and grants for business, industry, agriculture and tourism. Funds are also directed through political parties and private cultural and religious groups. The settlements thus divert resources badly needed by Jews (including many poor Jews) living inside the borders of sovereign Israel.
Demographic: The annexation of the West Bank, including the settlements, would mean Jews becoming a minority in their own country. This would leave Israel with two equally bad choices: either a Greater Israel that is likely to become a pariah state due to its denying national and civil rights to the Palestinian majority, or a binational state that would inevitably become a Greater Palestine due to the higher Palestinian birthrate. This demographic threat is recognized by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who argued in a November, 2007 interview with Ha’aretz that Israel was “finished” if it forced the Palestinians into a South African-style struggle for equality.
Military: The settlements are arguably a military burden rather than an asset. Huge numbers of troops have to be deployed to defend the settlers. Political scientist Menachem Klein has estimated that Israel employs one hundred thousand armed personnel to defend the two hundred and sixty thousand Jews in the settlements.
Diplomatic: The continued existence of the settlements is a public relations disaster for Israel. Numerous anti-Zionist propagandists point to the settlements as evidence of Israel’s alleged quest for territorial expansion and ethnic domination. The settlements provide a convenient excuse for rationalizing Palestinian violence and extremism.
Peace Now’s Settlement Watch refers to one hundred and twenty-one Israeli settlements in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem), including large cities such as Ariel and Ma’ale Adunim that have populations of more than fifteen thousand people. In addition, there are one hundred and five illegal outposts populated by three thousand settlers. Eighty per cent of the settlements and outposts sit (fully or partially) on private Palestinian-owned land.
Anti-Zionist writers have claimed that these settlements are irreversible. Virginia Tilley argues, for example (in The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock, 2005), that since the settlements have enjoyed the ongoing patronage of Jewish national institutions and all Israeli governments, their status is entrenched — and reinforced by the dependence of Israel on the key water aquifers in the West Bank, and by the power of the settler movement to respond to any pullback by shattering the unity of Jews both inside and outside Israel. However, the peaceful withdrawal of eight thousand settlers from Gaza in 2005 suggests that significant evacuation is possible, and that a strong Israeli government can overcome resistance from hardliners.
Most Israelis, and even many leading Palestinians, nevertheless concede (in public or private) that dismantling all of the settlements may be unrealistic. The political challenge is daunting, and the cost is estimated at more than $70 billion. The best outcome that can probably be hoped for, therefore, involves the evacuation of many settlers and the permanent retention of the larger settlement blocs within Israeli territory in exchange for land inside Green Line Israel. The final borders would obviously need to ensure the creation of a viable, contiguous Palestinian State, and should be accompanied by an explicit amendment to the Israeli Law of Return exempting the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Such plans have already been discussed at length in previous peace negotiations. During the January, 2001 discussions at Taba, Israel proposed to annex the suburbs of Jerusalem, the Etzion Bloc and the town of Ariel, while evacuating seventy-five thousand settlers. Similarly, the 2003 Geneva Accord stipulated an Israeli annexation of 2.2 per cent of the West Bank, including twenty-one settlements and one hundred and forty thousand settlers close to the Green Line.
It is also significant that the amended security fence line (as of February, 2005) annexes 8.6 per cent of the West Bank, including forty-nine settlements and one hundred and ninety thousand settlers. That leaves over seventy settlements and about seventy thousand settlers who may be ripe for evacuation.
A number of initiatives in Israel now encourage settlers east of the security fence to return home. For example, a number of public figures established One Home, which lobbies for a fair compensation law to encourage the voluntary evacuation of settlers. An associated parliamentary bill drafted by Knesset members Abshalom Vilan of Meretz and Colette Avital of Labor would buy the properties of settlers located east of the security fence for about $200,000 each. Vilan commissioned a poll which showed that half of the eighty thousand settlers on the Palestinian side of the fence would return if offered adequate compensation.

Dr. Philip Mendes, a periodic contributor to our magazine, is a senior lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Monash University in Australia and the author or co-author of six books, including Australia’s Welfare Wars Revisited (2008).

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.