How Israelis See the Settlements

By Yossi Klein Halevi
Originally published in the Wall Street Journal

A billboard near the highway entering Jerusalem proclaims in Hebrew: “The Time for Sovereignty Has Come.” It is part of a new campaign for the formal incorporation into Israel of Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank and barely a 10-minute drive east of Israel’s capital. The campaign’s sponsors, backed by several ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ’s coalition, see annexing Ma’ale Adumim as the first step to annexing the entire West Bank and preventing the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israelis have been arguing about settlements ever since the Six Day War of June 1967, when the Israeli army captured the West Bank—the biblical regions of Judea and Samaria—and small groups of Israelis began establishing enclaves there. Annexation, long the goal of the settlement movement, has always been more aspiration than possibility, thwarted by opposition within Israel and from the international community.

But with the rise of Donald Trump, settlement leaders have sensed an opening. Mr. Trump’s nominee as U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a longtime pro-settlement activist. And in a marked break with American policy, the Trump administration refused to condemn Israel’s announcement that it intends to build some 5,000 housing units in settlements, the largest expansion project in recent years.

A Palestinian laborer works at a construction site in the Jewish West Bank settlements of Ma’ale Adumim, near Jerusalem, Sept. 16, 2014.
A Palestinian laborer works at a construction site in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, near Jerusalem, Sept. 16, 2014. PHOTO: DAN BALILTY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the chaos of the Arab world in recent years have reinforced the settlers’ sense of opportunity. So too has the imminent approach of a date fraught with symbolic significance: the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War. According to Jewish tradition, 50 years—a jubilee—is the time for a reset. For those who believe that Israel needs to overcome its hesitancy and claim its rightful borders, it is a moment of high expectation.

Unlike critics abroad, including the U.N. Security Council, who denounce settlements as illegal under international law, mainstream Israeli discourse takes for granted the legitimacy of Israel’s claims to the West Bank—lands where the Jewish people find their deepest historical roots, won in a war of self-defense against the Arab world’s attempt to destroy the Jewish state. The debate, instead, is over the wisdom of implementing these claims to the “territories” (the more politically neutral term preferred by many in Israel).

Permanently absorbing the West Bank would mean adding more than two million Palestinians to Israel’s population, forcing it to choose eventually between the two essential elements of its national identity as both a Jewish state and a democracy.

That is precisely the point of another new campaign, from the opposite side of the political spectrum, urging withdrawal from the territories. “We’re Not Annexing—We’re Separating,” reads one billboard near the highway in Tel Aviv. A second billboard warns of what will happen if Israel doesn’t separate from the Palestinians: “The One-State Solution. Palestine.”

That warning reveals a profound shift in Israeli discourse. The mainstream Israeli left no longer promises “land for peace” but instead offers a more modest formula: withdrawal as the best way to ensure that Israel remains both Jewish and democratic. This shift recognizes that, after years of terrorism and Palestinian rejection of past Israeli peace offers (the last offer was in 2008), the Israeli public has become deeply skeptical of Palestinian intentions.

Polls consistently show that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution while doubting the possibility of peace. According to an October 2016 poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Peace Index, nearly 65% of Israelis backed peace talks—but only 26% thought they would succeed.

Israelis worry that a Palestinian state would be overtaken by the radical Islamist movement Hamas and would threaten their population centers with rocket attacks—precisely what happened in 2005 when Israel uprooted its 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdrew. For supporters, settlements are crucial to security—preventing Israel’s contraction to its pre-1967 borders, barely 9 miles wide at their narrowest point. For opponents, settlements are a mortal threat to the Jewish state. The Israeli dilemma: Which alternative is the greater existential danger?

Some 430,000 Israelis live in 131 officially sanctioned settlements spread throughout the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem). In addition, dozens of small settlement outposts have been established without Israeli government approval.

Israeli settlements

Meanwhile, a bill is advancing in the Knesset to legalize some 4,000 housing units built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank, while offering compensation to the owners. The bill has been widely denounced abroad and by Israel’s opposition Labor Party. For their part, the Palestinians regard all settlement building, especially since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, as intended to deny them national sovereignty and basic dignity—proof that Israel has no intention of ever withdrawing.

For both sides, settlements can assume mythic symbolism. Palestinians often refer to them as “colonies,” reflecting the supposedly colonialist nature of Israel itself. Indeed, Palestinian media regularly ignore any distinction between Israel’s boundaries before and after the 1967 war, labeling coastal cities such as Tel Aviv and Ashkelon as settlements too. For Israelis, the refusal of many Palestinians to come to terms with Israel’s legitimacy is proof that the conflict isn’t about settlements but about the very existence of a Jewish state.

Israelis wait at a bus stop Thursday in French Hill, a largely Jewish neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
Israelis wait at a bus stop Thursday in French Hill, a largely Jewish neighborhood of East Jerusalem. PHOTO: HEIDI LEVINE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Although the settlements tend to be regarded by the international community as an undifferentiated entity, the discourse about them in Israel is very different. For Israelis who support a two-state solution, settlements fall into two broad categories: those within so-called settlement blocs, close to the pre-1967 border and likely to remain a part of Israel in a final agreement, and those outside the blocs, which Israel would probably evacuate as part of a peace deal.

Israel’s retention of the blocs near the border would still allow territorial contiguity for a Palestinian state—though at least one settlement, Ariel, which Israel regards as a future bloc, is deep enough inside the West Bank to threaten that contiguity. Under various proposed plans, a Palestinian state would be compensated for lost land with territory from within pre-1967 Israel.

Depending on how one draws the map, more than three-quarters of the settler population lives in blocs likely to be kept by Israel under an agreement. The blocs plan gives hope to supporters of a two-state solution that settlement-building hasn’t yet reached the point of no return. Though Israel is hardly likely to evacuate 430,000 settlers, it could, with enormous strain to its social fabric, evacuate the 80,000 or so settlers living outside the blocs. (How traumatic would a forcible evacuation be? This past week, it took some 3,000 police and soldiers to remove a few dozen settlers from Amona, an illegal hilltop outpost.)

Israeli forces evacuate Jewish settlers Wednesday from Amona, an illegal West Bank settler outpost. Israeli police said that 41 police officers were injured during the evacuation, and 13 Israelis were arrested for violence.
Israeli forces evacuate Jewish settlers Wednesday from Amona, an illegal West Bank settler outpost. Israeli police said that 41 police officers were injured during the evacuation, and 13 Israelis were arrested for violence. PHOTO: HEIDI LEVINE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In a 2004 letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President George W. Bush endorsed the concept of blocs, noting that demographic changes needed to be taken into account—and implicitly accepting settlement building so long as it was confined to the blocs. But Israel and the U.S. couldn’t agree on the borders of those blocs, and President Barack Obama ignored the Bush administration’s approval of some settlement expansion.

The Bush letter may yet have a second life, however, and could become the basis for an understanding on settlements between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump. Tellingly, Israel’s announcement about renewing massive settlement building—primarily in the blocs—occurred after Mr. Netanyahu’s first phone call with the new president. The White House issued a mild rebuke to Israel on Thursday, but only after Mr. Netanyahu announced a new settlement for the evacuated residents of Amona—the first new government-sponsored settlement in more than two decades and a violation of the spirit of the Bush letter.

Mr. Netanyahu has also declared his intention to renew major building in East Jerusalem, which Israelis across the political spectrum regard as a category separate from the West Bank. For Israelis, the international community’s discourse over Jerusalem seems delusional. About 300,000 Israelis live in a dozen East Jerusalem neighborhoods built after the Six Day War. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, and for almost all Israelis—including those who support ceding part of the city to a Palestinian state—East Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods are just that: neighborhoods, not settlements.

The recent U.N. Security Council vote, facilitated by an American abstention, that condemned all Israeli building over the pre-1967 border as illegal, outraged the Israeli public. That resolution, Israelis noted bitterly, allowed for no distinction between, say, an isolated settlement on a West Bank hilltop and the ancient Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, which Jordan destroyed in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and which Israel rebuilt immediately after the Six Day War.

I live in an East Jerusalem neighborhood called French Hill. My neighbors’ politics cover the range of Israeli opinion; some have been peace activists. Yet not once have I heard any neighbor doubt the status of French Hill as part of the state of Israel. In recent years, growing numbers of Arab Israelis have moved into the neighborhood—one more indication of its irreversible absorption into Israeli society. But for the U.N., French Hill residents—including, absurdly, its Arab Israeli residents—are “settlers.”

Kfar Etzion, the first Israeli settlement in the territories, was founded in September 1967, just months after the Six Day War. At the time, Israelis couldn’t imagine that it heralded the birth of a movement that would transform the country’s borders, complicate its relations with the international community and become the focus of Israel’s most agonizing moral and political dilemma.

An Israeli settler works in the cookhouse of Kfar Etzion, a settlement in the West Bank near Bethlehem, in the months after the Six Day War of 1967. The cookhouse used to be a barracks for Jordan’s Arab Legion.
An Israeli settler works in the cookhouse of Kfar Etzion, a settlement in the West Bank near Bethlehem, in the months after the Six Day War of 1967. The cookhouse used to be a barracks for Jordan’s Arab Legion. PHOTO: ISRAELI GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE

Kfar Etzion, a small kibbutz, or communal farm, just south of Jerusalem, had been established in the 1940s—and was destroyed on the literal eve of Israel’s independence in 1948, its defenders massacred after surrendering to Arab militiamen. The restoration of Kfar Etzion—led by a dozen of its sons and daughters who had been evacuated shortly before its fall—was greeted by Israelis as self-evident. There was no cabinet decision to found the settlement and no public debate to thwart it.

Six months later, on Passover 1968, a group of Israelis pretending to be Swiss tourists rented a Palestinian hotel in the West Bank city of Hebron. When the holiday was over, the group declared its intentions to remain. This time, there was vehement debate among Israelis—about the wisdom of Jews settling in the midst of an Arab population. The Labor-led government was divided, and the settlers exploited that ambivalence to create a fait accompli.

The settlement movement has come a long way from those early days of ideological fervor and subterfuge. Today, settlements have attracted residents from almost every sector of Israeli Jewish society, often drawn not by ideology but by ample government-subsidized housing.

Israelis distinguish not only between different kinds of settlements but also different kinds of settlers. There are settlers who conform to the worst stereotypes—like the alleged Jewish terrorists who in 2015 firebombed a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma, killing three members of the Dawabshe family, including a baby. And then there are those such as Dafna Meir, a mother of six, including two foster children, who was stabbed to death in her home by a Palestinian terrorist, and her husband, Natan, who has publicly warned against hatred and revenge.

Almost 50 years after their founding, the first two settlements—Kfar Etzion and the Jewish community of Hebron—each offers an opposing vision of Israel’s future. Kfar Etzion, the first settlement, is now a part of a thriving region called the Etzion bloc, with 20,000 residents living in 19 communities, some of which resemble suburban sprawl more than isolated hilltops. For Israelis, the permanence of the Etzion bloc, even in a peace agreement, is a given.

Just south of the Etzion bloc, about a half-hour’s drive away, is another model of the Palestinian-Israeli future. Hebron is divided between an Israeli-controlled area, home to some 800 settlers and 30,000 Palestinians, and a Palestinian-controlled area, home to another 120,000 Palestinians.

Israeli soldiers on guard as Palestinians pass by in the West Bank city of Hebron, Oct. 19, 2007. Some 800 Jewish settlers live in Hebron, tightly guarded by Israeli soldiers.
Israeli soldiers on guard as Palestinians pass by in the West Bank city of Hebron, Oct. 19, 2007. Some 800 Jewish settlers live in Hebron, tightly guarded by Israeli soldiers. PHOTO: EDDIE GERALD/LAIF/REDUX

Hebron is playing out the nightmare vision of a one-state solution. On the Israeli side, the stalls of the Palestinian produce market are shuttered, closed down by the Israeli army after Palestinian terror attacks. Palestinian families tell of harassment by Jewish neighbors. A proxy war is being fought by Palestinian and Israeli children, who sometimes taunt and throw rocks at each other.

Here the traumas of the past refuse to recede. The Tomb of the Patriarchs, the traditional burial place of Abraham and Sarah, is hermetically divided between Muslim and Jewish prayer areas—a division imposed by the Israeli army after a settler, Baruch Goldstein, gunned down 29 Muslim worshipers in 1994. Nearby, in the basement of one of the Jewish-owned houses, is a museum devoted to the 69 Jews murdered by their Arab neighbors in a 1929 pogrom that ended the city’s millennia-old Jewish community. When Hebron’s Palestinians and Jews speak of “the massacre,” they usually mean only the massacre that happened to their side.

An Israeli visitor leaves Hebron with agonizing questions. How can Israel remain here as a permanent occupier of another people? But how can Israel abandon Hebron, second only to Jerusalem as a sacred city for Jews? Is there a future for a nation that rejects its past? Yet can a nation grant the past veto power over its future? Should we cling to the territories or release them? Which way leads to greater safety, and which to greater vulnerability, in a disintegrating Middle East?