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Settlers aren’t statistics

No matter how you slice it, tens of thousands of Israelis will have to be relocated in any final-status agreement with the Palestinians, and the needs of these potential evacuees must be met

Proponents of the two-state solution cannot allow settlers to become homeless refugees in their own country.

Israel’s borders remain a central issues in both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the ideological divide within the Zionist movement. For those who advocate a two-state compromise with the Palestinians, drawing a boundary between Israel and a Palestinian state will leave tens of thousands of Israelis on the wrong side of the line. So far, supporters of the two-state solution have failed to put forth a detailed, realistic plan to keep these Israelis from becoming homeless refugees.

At last week’s Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, a panel of experts took up the perennial question of “Tomorrow’s Borders of Israel.” Speakers from across the Israeli political spectrum presented their visions for Israel’s permanent boundaries. The debate touched upon many topics related to the issue of Israel’s borders, including security, demography, Jewish history, and the risks and benefits of a Palestinian state. To my disappointment, no speaker addressed the fate of Israeli settlers who would find themselves outside of Israel’s borders.

An impractical solution. Naftali Bennett (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
An impractical solution. Naftali Bennett (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Former Netanyahu Chief of Staff and Yesha Council Director-General Naftali Bennett spoke forcefully in favor of his plan to annex those areas of the West Bank that fall under full Israeli control under the Oslo II accords. The Palestinians would receive autonomy, but not statehood. Bennett stressed that no settlers should be uprooted from their homes. In an impassioned plea, he called upon the audience “to go out, walk the land, meet the people and see the life in Judea and Samaria.”

While I consider Bennett’s proposal unfeasible and unrealistic, I agree that advocates of a two-state compromise must encounter, and engage with, all of the settler communities in the West Bank. This would enable them to prevent these settlers from becoming homeless refugees in the event of a peace agreement. Until now, such efforts have been limited and sporadic. Some have been focusing either on a handful of non-ideological settlers, or those who are are congregated in large blocs that Israel should annex in any reasonable peace agreement. It is time for proponents of a two-state solution to engage with, and address the needs of, those settlers in locations most likely to be evacuated, and who are least likely to evacuate voluntarily.

Too often, the discourse surrounding the peace process treats settlers as statistics, not people. The discussion tends to focus on the number of settlers who would remain within Israel’s borders, while the evacuation of tens of thousands of Israeli citizens from their homes becomes an afterthought. While striving to maximize the number of settlers to be included within Israel’s borders is admirable, the potential human tragedy facing those settlers who would need to be evacuated should not be swept under the rug. Negotiators and policy experts are morally responsible for the policies they advocate. Those who advocate territorial compromise have an obligation to minimize the harm to those Israelis who live and/or work on the wrong side of a future border. Everything humanly possible must be done to aid evacuees in rebuilding their lives after being relocated to Israel-proper.

This task will not be easy. The saga of the Gush Katif evacuees demonstrates the tragic consequences of a government failure to adequately address the needs of evacuees prior to a withdrawal. In order to avoid a repeat of the Gush Katif debacle, the settlers must be able to preserve their way of life after being evacuated. Israeli citizens must not become refugees in their own country.  For this to be possible, policymakers must travel throughout the territories, engaging individuals and communities in order to understand the settlers’ points of view and address their individual and collective needs.

Policymakers must understand why many settlers will not voluntarily cooperate in planning their relocation. To do so would violate their deeply held religious beliefs that Jewish law prohibits territorial withdrawal, and that settling the entire Land of Israel is necessary to bring about the Messianic redemption. Obeying evacuation orders and voluntarily relocating would make them feel complicit in reversing the redemptive process and violating Jewish law.

The word 'why' is spray-painted on the wall of a house in Gush Katif prior to the 2005 disengagement (photo credit: Flash90)
The word ‘why’ is spray-painted on the wall of a house in Gush Katif prior to the 2005 disengagement (photo credit: Flash90)

As a result, many settlers will remain in their homes after evacuation orders are issued. These settlers will not make the plans necessary to address their needs after an evacuation. They will not participate in a voluntary evacuation-compensation scheme. They will not make prior arrangements for housing, employment, or schools for their children in the event they are relocated. It will be up to the government and NGOs to formulate and implement credible policies that meet the needs of these citizens.

In addition, policymakers must realize that financial compensation alone cannot meet the needs of evacuees. Given the centrality of communal life among national-religious settlers, simply providing them with a check to buy a new house is insufficient. Communities that are uprooted cannot be allowed to disperse and disappear. At the time when settlers will need the support of their close-knit communities the most, these communities cannot simply be uprooted and allowed to dissolve.

Instead, communities should be relocated intact, and in stages. Moreover, not one person should be evacuated until new housing within Israel has been constructed for an entire community. Dennis Ross recently suggested that such construction should begin as soon as possible in order to signal to the Palestinians that Israel is serious about a two-state outcome. It is equally important to send a message to the settlers that they will not be evacuated before their needs can be met.

Providing housing is only the beginning. The evacuees will require schools, employment, and infrastructure in their new towns and villages. Business enterprises, particularly in agriculture, will have to be moved to suitable locations. Psychological, vocational, and religious counseling and assistance should be made available to assist evacuees in a process of healing that will help them move beyond what they have lost and rebuild their lives.

The evacuation of settlements will entail a heavy burden that neither the settlers, nor broader Israeli society, should bear alone. The international community should bankroll the rehabilitation and relocation of the settlers no less than it will underwrite the repatriation and rehabilitation of Palestinian “refugees.” In the meantime, the demonization of settlers among certain segments of Israeli society, American Jewry, and in the international community must end. In addition, efforts to boycott settlements should be immediately halted. Those who stand to pay the highest price for peace should not be punished for the failures of politicians and diplomats to conclude an agreement.

No matter how you slice it, tens of thousands of Israelis will have to be relocated in any final-status agreement with the Palestinians. The needs of these potential evacuees must be met in order to minimize the harm to those Israelis who will pay the steepest price for peace. This will require proponents of the two-state solution to cross the left-right divide and break with ideological orthodoxies in order to seek creative and effective solutions.

About the Author
Ari Moshkovski is a Doctoral Candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He holds an M.A. from Brandeis University, as well as a B.A. and M.A. from Queens College of the City University of New York. At Queens College, he engaged in extensive research and curriculum development on Israel and the Middle East as part of a project funded by the Clinton Global Initiative and the Ford Foundation. Ari was also a co-founder of the Queens College Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding under a grant from the United States Department of Education. Has researched, taught, and lectured on Zionism, Jewish thought, Israeli foreign affairs and security policy, Arab-Israeli diplomacy, and the nexus between religion and politics.