The silence of the settlers

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

As my bus from Tel Aviv approached Jerusalem, it was hard to miss the impact of the construction of Jewish settlements have had on the hills surrounding the city. Similar activity takes place in many other settlements up and down the occupied West Bank. The scattered cranes leaves one wondering if the current peace negotiations have any meaning, as more and more Palestinian land is gobbled up.

Yet, protestation against the expansion of the settlements is quite muted; perhaps due to a sense of haplessness, both among Palestinians and the international community. This provides the settlers’ movement with a huge sense of confidence, even arrogance, that whatever happens in the renewed peace negotiations orchestrated by Washington, their future is secure.

One would have also expected to meet a quite unsettled, even jittery settlement community, as they face the potential prospect of crucial negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders about their future. Surprisingly all I heard was a dismissive approach, if not utter contempt, towards the peace negotiations. The prevailing view among their leaders, as much as among the rank and file is that these negotiations would lead to nothing, and peace will not be reached for decades. They might be over complacent, learning the wrong lessons from past failures of peace negotiations, or sadly they might be right. Yet, there are deeper changes occurring within the settlements’ society, which sometimes goes unnoticed, eluding even the negotiators themselves.

The beginning of the settlements

In the early days of the settlements their socio-economic-ideological profile was relatively homogenous. These were religious-national Jews, mainly young, who following the occupation of the West Bank in 1967, became infatuated with the idea of settling in what they claimed to be the land of their ancestors. They were mainly Ashkenazi middle class with a burning messianic ideology. They had little regard for the indigenous Palestinian population and their ongoing predicament, including the fact that many of them became refugees for the second time, first after the war of 1948 and now in the aftermath of Six Day War.

The current socio-economic-ideological heterogeneity of the settlements is important not only for the understanding of the society that has emerged there, but also for realizing the possible incentives which can be offered to those who would be repatriated back into Israel as part of a peace agreement.

Yossi Mekelberg

What started with the sheer determination of a small group of religious zealots soon after the war became a national project into which many billions of dollars have been poured into since. This led to nearly one tenth of the Jewish-Israeli population living beyond the 1949 war’s ceasefire line. The image of Rabbi Moshe Levinger and his followers conducting service for the first night of Passover in the Park Hotel in Hebron in 1968, personified what would become the leading settlement movement at the time Gush Emunim.

A movement which was influenced by the national- religious teachings of their Rabbis, who wanted to set it apart from both the secular Zionist and from the non-Zionist ultraorthodox. All of a sudden they found themselves a distinctive niche in both the Zionist movement and Judaism. They were unlike the secular Jews, who rejected religion and saw the state of Israel as revival of Jewish culture and identity rather than religion. They could also gradually assert themselves vis-à-vis the ultraorthodox, who dismissed their strand of Judaism by building religious communities on the land of their forefathers, confident in their theological teachings.

Expansion through economic incentives

The ascendance of the ring-wing Likud party to power in Israel in the late 1970s was also the beginning of the expansion of the settlements, not only in terms of territory and population, but also in terms of socio-economic diversity. Now Israelis were tempted to move to the occupied territories with very generous economic incentives. In the 1980s, at a time when inflation was raging in three digits figures, those who moved to live in the West Bank enjoyed extremely cheap mortgages compared to those who lived within Israel. Investment in infrastructure has been disproportionately higher in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank for decades compared to similar places in Israel proper. Together with an array of other economic benefits, Israel has enticed her citizens to move to the West Bank.

Moreover, many of these settlements were built very close to the Green Line within commuting distance to the main employment centers of the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. This in return attracted a very different type of settler in the form of secular Israelis who were looking for a better standard and quality of life which they could not afford elsewhere. They are characterized with a somewhat softer hawkish inclination than the early settlers. They justify their move to live in the settlements with a mixture of economic, historical and security reasons. In the pursuit of improving their lives, they ignored the fact that it came at the expense of the rights of other people, the Palestinians, or the eventual viability of a peace agreement based on a two state solution.

Even the haredim (ultraorthodox), who vigorously fought the fundamental premises of the Zionist ideology, were tempted to move to the settlements and today 70,000 of them live in eight settlements which are almost exclusively ultraorthodox. The combination of the need for homogenous communities together with high birth rate and poverty made a move to the occupied territories an almost impossible temptation to resist.

Challenges Ahead

The current socio-economic-ideological heterogeneity of the settlements is important not only for the understanding of the society that has emerged there, but also for realizing the possible incentives which can be offered to those who would be repatriated back into Israel as part of a peace agreement. On this core issue, a sense of urgency is paramount. An increasing number of settlers are not first generation anymore, but are already third and fourth generation and have never known life outside the settlements.

Moreover, even if their parents moved there for economic reasons, they seemed to have absorbed the nationalistic or religious ideology to justify living on an occupied land. Realistically it is expected that around 100,000 settlers will be required evacuate their settlements if and when a peace agreement is concluded. Understanding the motivations and susceptibility to a range of economic and social incentives of those who are expected to be evacuated is vital for the decision makers. This might mitigate their resistance if and when their cooperation would become essential for a peace agreement to materialize.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.