It is almost forty years since I undertook my doctoral research on the topic of Gush Emunim and the mechanics of the West bank settlements in their early days. It was the first major piece of research undertaken on the West Bank settlements and, although I have long moved into other areas of of research, I continue to visit these communities and record their expansion, physically demographically and economically.
Many people, especially amongst the more senior settlement planners in Israel, tried to warn me off the topic at the time, arguing that this was but a small deviation in the long term regional planning process, and that once the Labor government returned to power (these were the early days of Israel’s first right wing Likud administration under the leadership of Menachem Begin when the Labour establishment simply could not internalise the major power change that had taken place in the country) settlement activity beyond the Green Line, with the exception of two so called “consensus” areas, the Jordan valley of the Allon Plan, and Gush Etzion (which had been settled prior to 1948), would come to a halt.
Today, some forty years later, the population of the West Bank settlements (not including East Jerusalem) numbers approximately half a million people, many of whom are second and third generation children of the original Gush Emunim settlers, who have only ever known the West Bank as their home. This number continues to grow, resulting from high rates of natural growth within the religious communities, along with the continued movement of people from within Israel to the relatively high quality lifestyles, low density housing and excellent educational opportunities for their children.
The Green Line border, the administrative line which separates Israel from the West Bank, even today, has become increasingly blurred in many of the settlement areas, while the expansion of the transportation and road infrastructure linking the entire West Bank to Israel, has made many of the previously innacessible settlements, much more accessible and within even closer commuting distance to the main places of employment in the Gush Dan and Jerusalem metropolitan regions.
Geographically, the West Bank is no more than the suburban hinterland of the main cities, cut off by a physical divide prior to 1967. The earliest Gush Emunim and Amanah settlement planners knew how to promote settlement expansion through the model of suburbia, rather than the traditional kibbutz and moshav model of agricultural production and work only within the settlement itself. They have succeeded in achieving their political objectives through hooking into the social and economic aspirations of third and fourth generation Israelis, who perceive their own activities as the modern incarnation of the early Zionist pioneering in the remote and peripheral regions of pre-State Palestine, both in the Negev and the Galilee.
Writing back in 1979-80, many of the establishment planners, such as the father of post-State settlement development, professor Raanan Weitz, scoffed at the plans of his new right wing partner (forced upon him by the new government) Matityahu Drobless of reaching 100,00 Jewish residents of the West Bank by the year 2000. Not only was that number surpassed but today it has reached five times the number and shows no sign of slowing down.
The one thing that has constantly eluded the settlers has been the official legitimation and recognition. Defined as illegal by almost the entire international community, along with a large sector of Israel itself, the settlements, which have grown beyond all imagination and aspirations during the past four decades, have been labelled as constituting part of the colonial project of occupation, through which Israel contravenes international law by facilitating the transfer of civilian population from the “motherland” to the illegally occupied territory.
The term “settlement” continues to mislead all those who have never visited these communities or travelled through the West Bank region. The settlements are a mixture of small and large residential communities, some of them such as Kiryat Arba, Ariel, Efrat , Maaleh Adumim and Upper Beitar, townships numbering tens of thousands inhabitants in each. These ‘settlements” include a mixture of high and low density housing, shopping and commercial centres, public spaces, schools and yeshivot, municipal councils and, in one case, a college in Ariel which has been relabelled as a University and which consists of thousands of students, many of whom come from inside Israel proper. In political terms they may be settlements, but in planning terms they have consolidated into a regional planning framework of towns, suburbs and urban communities, no different to the way in which the settlement landscape throughout Israel has expanded during this same period.
One of the biggest myths relating to the expansion of settlements in this region is the idea that under national coalition or Labour governments (of which there have not been many in the last thirty years), settlement expansion was frozen and they were prevented from further expansion. But this only ever applied to the establishment of new communities, while expansion and consolidation of the existing communities never ceased, enabling them to reach economic and population thresholds which, ironically, they may not have achieved under different political situations.
At the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords, twenty five years ago, the West Bank settlement project had less than half of the population it now has – and this was a time when prominent leaders of the settlement movement bemoaned their perceived failure of achieving their political objective – namely the expansion of settlement to an extent where it would be impossible to give up land and where, eventually, they could claim sovereignty over the entire territory. This, they believed, was the way in which the earliest Zionist pioneers had acted prior to the establishment of the State, resulting in the borders which were offered to the State under the UNSCOP Partitions proposal in 1947, and which eventually were influential in determining the boundaries of the new State at the end of the War of Independence in 1947/48.
As the right wing has become stronger in Israel, so too has the desire to portray the settlements as constituting the natural continuation of the Zionist pioneering ethos. But this has never been accepted by half of Israel who see the settlements as constituting “THE” obstacle to peace and the implementation of a two state solution, or by the international Community who deem all such settlements as illegal and, increasingly, back a boycott of any goods produced in these settlements – as was clearly indicated in last weeks pronouncement by the EU..
The settlers and their leaders, who today are disproportionately represented in the Knesset and in government institutions far beyond their overall representation in the Israeli population as a whole, have consciously moved to gradually erase the Green Line. Although many of them object to the Separation Barrier because it creates a de facto border, they are equally aware that those areas where the Wall / Fence deviates from the Green Line are precisely in those areas where there are large settlement blocs in close proximity and which the Government wish to be included in Israel if, and when, there was to be a formal demarcation of new boundaries – a prospect which today seems as far away from reality as at any time since the Six day War over fifty years ago.
This settlement expansion has resulted, in the past two years, for many Israeli politicians including Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Naftali Bennet, to suggest – for the first time since 1967 – formally annexing large parts of the West bank to Israel itself, similar to what was done in both East Jerusalem (1967) and the Golan Heights (1981). In that sense, and in direct contrast to how the settlers felt at the time of the Oslo Accords, they believe that they have now succeeded, albeit partially, in changing the political and geopolitical realities through the creation of facts on the ground, and through their continued opposition to any government attempts – be they right or left wing governments – to freeze and put an end their activity.
And this week the settler movement was awarded yet another prize when United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, declared that the USA no longer defined West bank settlements / communities, as illegal and that this was entirely for the Israeli judicial authorities to decide. Pompeo ignored, probably out of ignorance, the fact that there have been a number of occasions where the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled, as far back as the 1970s in the Bet El and Elon Moreh cases, that settlement activity on private Palestinian land is indeed illegal. However, they have not ruled that the expropriation of public land for bona fide defensive purposes is illegal, while the designation of exactly what land is “private” and what land is “public” is open to much difference of opinion between government officials and NGOs, and that the use of such land for the establishment of civilian and residential activities can not normally be termed as constituting a defensive purpose. These are arguments going back forty years and they are unlikely to be resolved as different stakeholders – be they Israeli or Palestinian, public or private – determine the nature of legality and illegality according to their respective political beliefs.
The rest of the international community, and the EU amongst them, reject Pompeo’s new designation. They continue to see all settlement activity beyond the Green Line as being illegal. But what even they fail to realise is that the settlements have expanded to such an extent that they have long put an end to the idea that at some future Messianic date, there will be a peace proposal which will sign on to two States and which will bring about the evacuation of all such “illegal” settlements as an integral part of such a proposal. The simplistic version of the two State solution where all you have to do is to redraw borders, exchange small pieces of territory and evacuate all the rest has long since ceased to be an implementable option. Far too many people, including senior policy makers, continue to use the mantra of the “Two State solution” without relating to the fact that conditions on the ground have change so much, that all former versions of two States are no longer operable. Some complex non-territorial forms of power sharing may yet be on the table, although it is increasingly difficult to see how any such solution could be implemented.
The settler community and their leaders are rubbing their hands with glee following Pompeo’s statement. As far as they are concerned it is yet another nail in the coffin of any form of peace solution which would require the withdrawal from any part of the West Bank. They believe that time has worked in their favour and will continue to do so for as long as there are no serious negotiations and for as long as they continue to build houses, create new outposts, attract young settler families and, most importantly, have the United States Administration on their side.