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The Challenge of Repatriating Israel’s Settlers

Ron Skolnik
July 10, 2013

by Ron Skolnik

"Ve'shavu banim gl'gvulam" — "Your children will return to their own land" (Jeremiah 31:17)

During the Q&A segment of a talk I recently delivered in Connecticut, a questioner scolded me on my use of the term “settlers” to refer to Israelis who reside in territories captured by Israel during war of June 1967. These Israelis should be called “returnees,” I was told, since they were returning to lands that had been dwelt in by Jews of earlier millennia.

israel-settlers-attack-palestine-womanMy reply to this lone voice in an otherwise supportive crowd was that, while many Jews do have emotional, cultural, religious, and historical ties to the lands called “Judea and Samaria” by the Israeli government (and the “West Bank” by every other government), Israel had never, with the exception of East Jerusalem, annexed these territories and applied its law there. Consequently, the true issue was not the nomenclature for the 350,000 Jewish Israelis living in the West Bank (in addition to the roughly 200,000 now in East Jerusalem), but the fact that they enjoy the full rights and protections of Israeli citizenship, while approximately 2.7 million Palestinians living under “belligerent occupation” (as Israel’s Supreme Court has termed it) are stateless, rightless, and disenfranchised. This situation has prompted American Jewish writer Peter Beinart to refer to the occupied West Bank as “non-democratic Israel.”

The affront to democracy and human rights posed by the status of the settlers is not, however, the only challenge created by the settlement enterprise. Over the decades of occupation, Israel’s government has sited a large number of settlements with a very specific geopolitical aim of denying the Palestinians territorial contiguity and preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state — a strategy recently acknowledged by Israel’s current chief peace negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Although Israeli policy on Palestinian statehood has moderated over the years — even Prime Minister Netanyahu has affirmed the need for a two-state solution, though he seems in no rush to get there — the problem created by the settlements only worsens with time. There are now entire second and third generations of settlers who know no other home. Dozens of unauthorized ma’ahazim (outposts) have gone up since the 1990s far from Israel’s 1967 “Green Line” border, with the express encouragement of Israeli leaders, under protection of the Israeli army, and with the clandestine financial support of Israeli government institutions. It is a sad commentary on the peace process that in the twenty years since the signing of the Israel–PLO “Declaration of Principles” on the White House lawn in September 1993, the number of West Bank settlers has more than tripled.

Although maligned by today’s Israeli peace camp, it was actually Ehud Barak who, in 2000, became the first prime minister to state publicly that many Israeli settlements would have to be dismantled and thousands of settlers would have to move if a two-state peace were to be achieved. Barak’s aspiration was to include roughly 80 percent of the settlers within Israel’s future borders under a peace deal that would involve Israeli annexation of about 10 percent of the West Bank.

Luckily for Israel and Palestine, Israeli settlers are not dispersed evenly throughout the territory, and the vast majority live in settlement blocs or clusters in proximity to the Green Line. As a result, in his ambitious negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was able to propose the inclusion within Israel’s borders of roughly 75 percent of the settlers by offering to swap for and annex about 6 percent of West Bank land.

Unfortunately, even such a peace deal would involve the relocation of between 75.000 and 100,000 settlers, a number much greater than the almost 9,000 evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2005. More unfortunately, there exists a strong correlation between the religious-Zionist fervor of the settlers and their geographical distance from the Green Line. In other words: The settlers who would have to be evacuated tend to be those least likely to go quietly.

Moving them would certainly be a daunting task, given Israel’s delicate and strained social fabric. Religious Zionists now hold about one third of all officer positions in the military. With esteemed rabbis and senior political leaders suggesting that religious soldiers should refuse to carry out any future evacuation order, there is palpable concern among Israeli leaders that an evacuation decision could give rise to a disintegration of the army and an eventual crumbling of all state institutions. Nonetheless, polls over the last few years indicate that within the general public, a clear majority (even among supporters of right-wing parties) recognize evacuation to be a necessary component of a future peace deal.

Polls among settlers, however, show that over half do not even recognize the government’s authority to evacuate settlements (since this would contradict their interpretation of Divine will and Jewish religious law) — and a full 20 percent say they would take up weapons to oppose such a move. Indeed, the settler population is well-armed, and almost all adults among them have the right to carry “personal weapons,” usually semiautomatic assault rifles or submachine guns, for self-defense. A decade ago, Knesset Member Ran Cohen secured documents from Israel’s Defense Ministry indicating that settlements also held “enormous weapons caches,” possibly including mortars and armed vehicles. These items were reportedly supplied by the IDF in the 1980s and 1990s for settlement-based “territorial defense auxiliaries” and civil guard units.

How, then, will Israel manage to evacuate more than 1 percent of its citizens, who have a support base many times that size, without catalyzing a civil war marked by violent acts of sedition?

While the settler community is far from monolithic, members of its extremist wing have shown a willingness to organize violently to achieve their ends. The “Jewish Underground” of the 1980s, famous for its attempt to assassinate nationalist Palestinian mayors, was an early iteration of “settler terrorism,” and there have been others. For the last five years, such settlers have decided on a “price tag” policy, engaging in acts of violence in retaliation for any step by the Israeli government (e.g., uprooting an unauthorized outpost or restricting West Bank construction) that weakens the settlement enterprise. These “price tag” acts have included attacks on Palestinian civilians, destruction of property, uprooting of olive trees, burning of mosque and fields, attacks on Israeli police and soldiers, and death threats to left-wing Israeli activists.

Based on an understandable desire to avert civil uprising, many in Israel have searched for a non-confrontational approach to settler evacuation. One early effort was Bayit Ekhad (“One Home”), formed in 2005 by former Knesset members Avshalom Vilan and Colette Avital to promote voluntary, compensated evacuation. Avital and Vilan focused on the settlements that fall outside Israel’s future peacetime borders; polls found that two-fifths in these communities were ready to move, if they could get a reasonable price for their homes. (Later polls have pointed to 30 percent participation in such a plan.)

One Home lobbied the centrist Olmert government to pass an “evacuation-compensation law” that would budget several billions of dollars to buy the homes of up to 12,000 families, so they could start over inside Israel. Olmert resigned, however, in a 2008 corruption scandal before ever putting the plan to a Cabinet vote.

More recently, the compensated evacuation idea has been expanded by another One Home founder, former Shin Bet director and naval commander Ami Ayalon, who has formed Atid Kakhol Lavan (“Blue and White Future”). The group is promoting a bill of “Absorption, Compensation and Voluntary Evacuation,” and a strategy of “embracing the settlers.” For both philosophical and tactical reasons, Ayalon has long argued that the Israeli left should not demonize the settlers and should start relating to them as “brothers and sisters.” Settler resistance could be significantly lowered, he argues, if the nation were able to reach a consensus on Israel’s core mission of being a “Jewish and democratic state” and show the settlers respect and compassion, not hostility, since they were sent to the West Bank at the behest of the State of Israel and are now facing a difficult personal sacrifice.

In this spirit, Kakhol Lavan makes use of the generally heroic Hebrew word mityashvim to refer to the settlers (the same term used for those who created the kibbutzim), rather than the more pejorative mitnakhlim (applied only to West Bank settlers). In its program, Kakhol Lavan emphasizes its “deep commitment to the settler community, whose mission has been completed.” In addition, Ayalon argues that the government needs to produce a credible, feasible program for the mass reabsorption of settlers following a peace deal, since much of the resistance to the evacuation idea stems from Israel’s poor handling of its Gaza Strip evacuees.

No one can say for sure that the settlers could be brought back to Israel peaceably if they were shown more love and appreciation. Curiously, the settlers have tried a very similar strategy over the years, stressing shared concerns and emphasizing that “all Jews are family” (kol yisrael akhim) in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the Israeli mainstream.

Of course, while financial incentives and soft power might be sufficient for the tens of thousands who have little ideological or religious commitment to Judea and Samaria, Israel would still have to contend with a settler minority that one longtime Israeli cabinet minister defined as “messianic, mystic, satanic and irrational.”

In April 1982, under the terms of its peace accord with Egypt, Israel evacuated thousands of its citizens from the Sinai Peninsula. Although offering some physical resistance, the Sinai settlers backed away from threats to use explosives and commit mass suicide.

In August 2005, Israel’s evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements and four West Bank settlements encountered a smattering of violence, including the setting of fires and the resistors’ use of acid and other caustic substances, but, again, no armed confrontation broke out.

The West Bank, however, presents evacuation challenges on a different scale. The number who will need to be relocated is enormous. Just as important, Judea and Samaria, unlike Sinai and Gaza, are considered the “cradle of Jewish civilization,” with Biblical place names such as Hebron and Shilo that stir strong emotions among Jews, especially those in the religious Zionist world. The hundreds hurt in violent clashes in January 2006, when Israeli security forces took over and demolished nine houses in the unauthorized Amona outpost, deep in the West Bank, could be a taste of things to come.

Some policy planners are therefore trying to explore an alternative for the tens of thousands of settlers far from the Green Line: to leave them in place and allow them to live in a State of Palestine as expatriate Israelis or dual citizens. Most analysts argue, however, that such an arrangement is a recipe for instability that outweighs the risks of mass evacuation. Given the ill will Palestinians harbor towards the settlers, one much-too-conceivable scenario is an extremist attack on Israelis remaining in a State of Palestine. Such a development might easily catalyze Israel’s armed entry into Palestine, which could undermine the peace and destabilize the entire region.

Perhaps the most productive, realistic strategy that Israel can adopt is one that seeks to minimize, rather than eliminate, the difficult problem ahead. Clearly, not all settlers slated for evacuation will leave peaceably; many thousands will cling to “God’s promise to Abraham” of all the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18-19). The government will certainly need to employ some degree of force, but if it were able to minimize the size of the active resistance, lessen its potency, and reduce its popular and political support, evacuation could become a manageable challenge.

Reducing the number of settlers by bringing some back home, especially from the far-flung settlements that are certain to be evacuated, is one important step that needs to be taken without delay. Creating a comprehensive plan for reabsorption that would ease fears might also promote compliance. Such a plan should include the possibility of relocating entire communities and keeping them intact in order to make evacuation more palatable.

Promises of international aid to help defray the costs of repatriation would help ease the economic jitters of an Israeli public now being hammered by austerity measures, and lower public support for settler hold-outs. A change in discourse might be constructive as well: Inviting the settlers to embark on a new mission of bringing peace to Israel might cause some to look at evacuation as a “win-win” for all sectors of Israeli society, rather than a “victory of the cursed leftists.”

Last but certainly not least, the Israeli mainstream will need to stem the growing legitimacy of insurrectionist ideas on the Israeli right so that if a mass evacuation order is given to the army, it will be operationally feasible. Netanyahu took a step in this direction this past December: Responding to pro-refusal remarks made during the election campaign by Naftali Bennett, head of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, Netanyahu declared that advocates of such ideas would have no place in his government. Bennett quickly backtracked.

Similarly, rabbis who call for mass refusal should be removed from the government payroll and ousted from positions of influence within the army. Incidents in which religious military units threaten mutiny should be dealt with swiftly and severely, including the discharge of all involved. Wanton settler violence should be firmly and finally delegitimized and cast outside the tent, no longer to be nonchalantly dismissed as the work of a few bad seeds. To this end, Netanyahu must lift his objection to the Israel Security Agency’s recommendation that “price tag” violence be defined and prosecuted as no less than an act of terrorism.

No single step will make the eventual evacuation of settlers painless. But if Israeli government and society were to approach the goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace with determined conviction, were mindful of the human dimension of evacuation, planned properly in advance, and showed zero tolerance for settler challenges to the State’s authority, this dangerous strait could become a navigable passage.

Ron Skolnik is executive director of Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), which supports a genuine peace between the State of Israel and its neighbors (including the Palestinian people) based on a negotiated land-for-peace solution.