Grab more hills, expand the territory

Henry Siegman

  • The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-77 by Gershom Gorenberg
    Holt, 454 pp, £16.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 8050 8241 8
  • Lords of the Land: The War over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007 by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar
    Nation, 531 pp, $29.95, October 2007, ISBN 978 1 56858 370 9

The title of Gershom Gorenberg’s book is somewhat misleading in its suggestion that the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza was ‘accidental’. While Gorenberg, an American-born Israeli journalist, notes that no Israeli government ever made a formal decision about the future of the West Bank, his account of the first decade of Israel’s occupation leaves no doubt that the settlements were deliberately founded, and were intended to create a permanent Israeli presence in as much of the Occupied Territories as possible (indeed, the hope was for them to cover all of the Occupied Territories, if the international community would allow it). No Israeli government has ever supported the establishment of a Palestinian state east of the 1949 armistice line that constituted the pre-1967 border. At the very least, the settlements were designed to make a return to that border impossible.

It is clear from Gorenberg’s account, and from Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar’s comprehensive survey of the settlement project, Lords of the Land, that the issue dividing Israeli governments has not been the presence of settlements in the West Bank. Shimon Peres of the Labour Party played a key role in launching the settlement enterprise. Their differences have been over what to do with the Palestinians whose lands were being confiscated. Most have argued they should be granted home rule and Jordanian citizenship. Over the years, some cabinet members – Rehavam Ze’evi, Rafael Eitan, Effi Eitam and Avigdor Lieberman, for example – have openly advocated ‘transfer’, a euphemism for ethnic cleansing. There has been general agreement that, rather than adopt a formal position on the future status of the West Bank’s residents and risk provoking international opposition, Israel should continue to create ‘facts on the ground’ while remaining discreet about their purpose. In time, it was thought, the world would come to accept the Jordan River as Israel’s eastern border.

These books give the lie to the carefully cultivated narrative that has sustained the occupation. According to that narrative, the government of Israel offered peace to the Palestinians and to its Arab neighbours in the aftermath of the war of 1967 if they would agree to recognise the Jewish state. But at a meeting of the Arab League in Khartoum on 1 September 1967, the Arab world responded with ‘the three “no”s of Khartoum’: no peace, no recognition and no negotiations. This left Israel no choice but to continue to occupy Palestinian lands. Had Palestinians not resorted to violence in resisting the occupation, the story goes, they would have had a state of their own a long time ago.

The story is a lie. Israel’s military and political leaders never had any intention of returning the West Bank and Gaza to their Arab residents. The cabinet’s offer to withdraw from Arab land was addressed specifically to Egypt and Syria, not to Jordan or the Palestinians in the territories. The cabinet’s formal resolution to return the Sinai and the Golan in June 1967 said nothing about the West Bank, and referred to Gaza as ‘fully within the territory of the state of Israel’. With only a murmur of dissent, the cabinet, led by Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan, and the then prime minister, Levi Eshkol, committed itself to policies that would allow only local forms of autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, an arrangement they believed would in time allow them to establish the Jordan River as not only Israel’s security border but as its internationally recognised political border as well.

The decision to retain control of the territories was taken days after the end of the 1967 war, and was not a response to Palestinian terrorism, or even to Palestinian rejection of Israel’s legitimacy. Zertal and Eldar cite a report by Mossad officials, prepared at the request of the IDF’s intelligence division and presented to the IDF on 14 June 1967, which found that ‘the vast majority of West Bank leaders, including the most extreme among them, are prepared at this time to reach a permanent peace agreement’ on the basis of ‘an independent existence of Palestine’ without an army. The report was marked top secret, and buried.

Security was the reason offered by Israel to justify the founding of the settlements. But the overwhelming majority of them actually created new security problems, if only because vast military and intelligence resources had to be diverted to their defence. The settlements have also enraged the Palestinians, whose land has been stolen to make room for them – this, too, has done nothing to increase Israel’s security.

Both books demonstrate in considerable detail that this was the conclusion not only of external critics but of Israeli military and security experts as well. Haim Bar-Lev, a former chief of staff, asserted before Israel’s Supreme Court in 1979 that Jewish settlements in densely populated Arab areas would make terror attacks easier, and that securing the settlements would distract security forces ‘from essential missions’. Major General Matityahu Peled rejected the security argument as ‘not made in good faith’, and intended ‘for only one purpose: to give a justification for the seizure of the land that cannot be justified in any other way’.

The most influential supporter of a vigorous settlement policy was Yigal Allon, the legendary commander of Israel’s Palmach, an elite force established before the founding of the state. ‘A peace treaty,’ he said at a government meeting on 19 June 1967, ‘is the weakest guarantee of the future of peace and the future of defence.’ Zertal and Eldar report that he warned against returning even a single inch of the West Bank, and told the cabinet that if he had to choose between ‘the wholeness of the land with all the Arab population or giving up the West Bank, I am in favour of the wholeness of the land with all the Arabs.’ Allon’s views, which shaped the strategic thinking of Israel’s political and security elites for decades, were deeply influenced by his mentor Yitzhak Tabenkin, one of the founders of the Yishuv. Tabenkin believed that partition was a temporary state of affairs and that the ‘wholeness’ of the land would eventually be achieved, whether peacefully or through war.

Lords of the Land and The Accidental Empire reveal the massive scale of Israel’s theft of Palestinian lands and the involvement of every part of Israeli society in advancing the settlement enterprise in clear and deliberate violation not only of international law but of Israel’s own laws. Gorenberg reports that when asked by the foreign minister, Abba Eban, in 1967 about the legality of settlements, Theodor Meron, the foreign ministry’s legal counsel, responded: ‘Civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.’ The prohibition, he stressed, is ‘categorical and is not conditioned on the motives or purposes of the transfer, and is aimed at preventing colonisation of conquered territory by citizens of the conquering state’.

The settlements were carefully investigated in 2005 by a commission headed by Talia Sasson, who was cynically appointed by Ariel Sharon to uncover the illegal activities that he himself had orchestrated. Sasson found that the settlements – illegal according to Israel’s own laws – were established with the secret support of virtually every government ministry, the IDF and Shin Bet. Feigning shock when Sasson presented her findings, Sharon and his ministers promptly buried the report.

Zertal and Eldar make clear that the settlers lord it not only over the Occupied Territories and their subject population but over the state of Israel as well. It is important to remember that the majority of Israel’s settlers are driven not by ideology but by economic and quality-of-life considerations, and are attracted by the heavy subsidies the government supplies to the settlements. Some of these ‘non-ideological’ settlers are secular Israelis, while others are members of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities that are deeply ambivalent if not opposed to the Zionist national enterprise. But the driving force behind the settlements is a small religious-nationalist group, whose members are widely considered the most savvy, well connected and effective political operators in Israel. Their ideology combines an intense form of religious messianism with an extreme nationalism that has far more in common with the religious and ethnocentric nationalism of the Serbian Orthodox militias of Mladic and Karadzic than with any Jewish values I am familiar with. That Sharon and some of his settler friends were virtually the only politicians in the West (other than Serbia’s Slavic supporters) who opposed military measures to prevent Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo was not an accident.

The religious-nationalist leadership now seems to have lost much of its authority with the far more radical younger generation born and bred in the settlements. This new generation draws inspiration from the ‘hilltop youth’, young people who responded to Sharon in October 1998 when, as foreign minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, he called on settlers to ‘grab’ hilltops in the parts of the West Bank from which he and Netanyahu had agreed to withdraw, as stipulated by the Oslo Accords. ‘Grab more hills, expand the territory,’ Sharon urged on Israel Radio. ‘Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands. Everything we don’t grab will be in their hands.’

The ‘hilltop youth’ reject the authority of the Jewish state and its institutions. They run around in what they imagine to be biblical dress, assaulting Palestinians, stealing and destroying their homes, crops and orchards, occasionally beating them and every so often killing them. Occasionally the IDF intervenes, but their efficacy is undermined by their belief that their main job is to protect the settlers, not the population under occupation.

David Shulman, a distinguished academic, peace activist and a member of Ta’ayush, an organisation of Israeli Palestinians and Jews promoting coexistence, wrote about the hilltop youth in his recent book Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine.[*] ‘Like any society,’ he writes, Israel

has violent sociopathic elements. What is unusual about the last four decades in Israel is that many destructive individuals have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise. Here, in places like Chavat Maon, Itamar, Tapuach and Hebron, they have, in effect, unfettered freedom to terrorise the local Palestinian population; to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill – all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews’ exclusive right to it.

Even otherwise law-abiding Israelis see the hilltop youth as latter-day halutzim, the Zionist pioneers who cleared malarial swamps and built the kibbutzim.

As a result of Sharon’s dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005, many young people in the religious-nationalist camp have become further radicalised and alienated from the settler leadership. They saw the withdrawal as a bitter and unforgivable betrayal, and found fault with their own leaders for their failure to prevent it. They could not accept Sharon’s argument that the removal of the Gaza settlements was unavoidable if Israel was to hold onto Palestinian land in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. That was the deal Bush agreed to in a letter he handed Sharon at Camp David in 2004: in return for withdrawal, Bush stated his administration’s position that ‘in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.’

In a recent editorial, Ha’aretz accused not only the settlers but all of religious Zionism of having ‘positioned itself as a movement that denies the sovereignty of the state’:

As long as the state serves the goals of the settlements, they support it. But the moment a contrary decision is made – on territorial withdrawals or evacuation of outposts – this camp allows itself to break the law … This is not the passing caprice of a few teens, but the metamorphosis of an entire camp from a centre of constructive activity to a centre of subversion.

Similar criticisms have even been expressed by members of the religious-nationalist camp. The rabbi of Moshav Nov, Yigal Ariel, recently published a book called Leshem Shamayim (‘For the Sake of Heaven’), which condemns the movement for its hostility to the ‘basic rule of law’. He accuses the settlers of becoming ‘delusional and irrational’, in danger of ‘being swept into a dark abyss of their own making’.

Lords of the Land lets no one off the hook. But in a society in which security is a central concern, the military inevitably plays an unusually powerful role in shaping the values of the young men and women who serve in it for two to three years or more. Its pervasive influence poses by far the greatest danger to Israel’s future: to its survival as a democratic state and to the Jewish values the state was intended to embody.

Since 1967, the IDF has transformed itself into the army of the settlers, to which abused Palestinians cannot turn for protection. The settler leadership’s close ties with government power-brokers mean that they can make or break the careers of the IDF’s most senior officers. The most chilling part of Zertal and Eldar’s story is their description of how the settler leaders intimidate IDF commanders and make them fall into line. The most decorated soldier in the history of the IDF, Ehud Barak, Israel’s former prime minister and currently the minister of defence in Olmert’s government, had to eat his words after settler leaders walked out during a speech he made when he was the head of the IDF’s Central Command in May 1987 because he used the word ‘occupation’ to describe Israel’s presence in the West Bank. They returned to their seats only after he agreed to repeat his talk without using that word.

While the IDF, with the help of Shin Bet, is somehow able to locate almost every potential Palestinian terrorist in the West Bank and seems to be aware of their most intimate conversations, they don’t often appear able to locate Jewish settlers who have attacked innocent Palestinians, destroyed their homes and farms, or murdered them. Most settlers’ crimes remain unsolved, as do crimes committed by IDF soldiers. The military justice system rarely fails to find extenuating circumstances for IDF abuses. And the few Israelis who are found guilty receive ridiculously lenient sentences. Meanwhile, more than ten thousand Palestinians, including women and teenagers, languish in Israeli jails, many without having been indicted or tried for specific crimes.

The contrast with the courts’ treatment of settlers is striking. Pinchas Wallerstein, one of the most prominent settler leaders, fired at an Arab youth whom he saw burning a tyre on the road. The boy, whom he shot in the back, died. Wallerstein was sentenced to perform public service. The judge, Ezra Hadaiya, quoted the rabbinic admonition that ‘one should not judge one’s fellow until one is in his place.’ In 1982, a settler, Nissan Ishegoyev, fired his Uzi machine-gun into an alley from which Palestinian children were throwing stones, and killed a 13-year-old boy. His punishment was three months’ public service. Between 1988 and 1992, the violent deaths of 48 Palestinians were recorded in the Occupied Territories. In only 12 of these cases were indictments filed against the Israeli suspects; of these, only one resulted in a murder conviction; another ended in a conviction for manslaughter, and six resulted in convictions for causing death through negligence. The defendant who was convicted of murder, for which the maximum punishment is 20 years in prison, was sentenced to three years.

The belief that people who spend some of their most impressionable years in the IDF will return from their service with their democratic, humanitarian and egalitarian sensibilities intact is the absurd myth underlying the IDF’s conceit that it is the most moral army in the world. Equally absurd is the notion that Israel has a model justice system in which Palestinians can get fair treatment. Israelis concerned about the double standards of their justice system have taken comfort in the enlightened rulings of Israel’s Supreme Court. But these can no longer be counted on. Recently, in an interim decision, the Supreme Court accepted for the first time the idea of separate roads for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories; the Association for Civil Rights in Israel sees the arrangement as marking the onset of legal apartheid.

What makes the situation particularly frightening is that the senior leaders of the IDF are increasingly settlers in the religious-nationalist camp. Many of them are under the sway of settler rabbis, who, like their jihadi counterparts, provide religious rulings – fatwas, in effect – inciting their followers even to murder Israeli prime ministers if they cross the settlers’ red lines. The extent of this change in the IDF was described by Steven Erlanger in the New York Times last December. Colonel Aharon Haliva, the commander of Israel’s officer training school, told Erlanger that more than a third of the volunteers in combat units now come from the religious settler youth. ‘You don’t find them in Tel Aviv, but all over the hills of Judea and Samaria,’ Haliva said. ‘They are the pioneers of today.’ Their influence on their charges is profound. ‘In two months I’ll command 20 soldiers,’ one of them said to Erlanger, ‘and from them there will be maybe two officers, and that’s another forty soldiers, and another forty families … First commanders matter. The way I hold my weapon – it’s the way my first commander held it.’

Haggai Alon, a senior official in the Ministry of Defence in Olmert’s government when the ministry was headed by Amir Peretz, recently charged the IDF with furthering the settlers’ agenda. Alon told Ha’aretz that the IDF ignores the Supreme Court’s instructions about the path of the so-called security fence, and is instead ‘setting a route that will not enable the establishment of a Palestinian state’. Alon noted that when in 2005 James Wolfensohn negotiated an agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which was intended to ease restrictions on Palestinians travelling in the Occupied Territories, the IDF eased them for the settlers instead; for Palestinians, the number of checkpoints doubled. According to Alon, the IDF is ‘carrying out an apartheid policy’ that is emptying Hebron of Arabs and Judaising (his term) the Jordan Valley, while co-operating openly with the settlers in an attempt to make a two-state solution impossible.

The claim that it is only Palestinian violence and rejectionism that compelled Israel to remain in the territories is a fabrication. As I argued in the LRB (16 August 2007), the assiduously promoted story of Israel’s pursuit of peace and its search for a Palestinian ‘partner for peace’ was fashioned to buy time to establish ‘facts on the ground’: settlements that would so completely shatter the territorial and demographic contiguity and integrity of Palestinian land and life as to make the establishment of a Palestinian state impossible. In this, Israel’s leaders have succeeded so well that Olmert, who claims finally to have realised that without a two-state solution Israel will become an apartheid entity that cannot survive, has not been able to implement even the smallest of the changes he promised in Annapolis. The expansion of the settlements and of a Jews-only highway system in the West Bank continues without interruption. The price that Israel and Jews everywhere – not to speak of the Palestinian people – may yet have to pay for this ‘success’ is painful to contemplate.

[*] Chicago, 236 pp., £11.50, May 2007, 978 0 226 75574 8.