Miriam Shaviv
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Confused view on settlements
Date: Friday, August 24th, 2007
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

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Anyone trying to figure out the Israeli government’s policy on Jewish settlement in Hebron might be rightly confused by the events of the past two weeks.

Earlier this month, the IDF forcibly removed two dozen Jewish settlers from two houses in the town’s wholesale market, where they had been squatting for months. The settlers threw stones, water, oil and cement powder as they tried to resist and 30 people were injured. But the government was determined to go ahead — 12 soldiers face disciplinary action for refusing to take part in the operation.

It has now emerged that the settlers were allowed into the buildings by the IDF, which agreed they could live there if they did so peacefully. According to MK Otniel Schneller, of the ruling Kadima Party, the agreement was approved by the Cabinet last year. And now the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Sub-Committee on the West Bank is asking Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to allow the settlers to return to the property from which they were evicted.

It is obvious what the settlers will make of these mixed messages — that they should try their luck again and return to the Hebron marketplace. But what are we to make of them? Occupied Territories, a new book by Gershom Gorenberg, a former editor at The Jerusalem Report, offers useful insight.

He asks: how did Israel end up with 250,000 settlers in the West Bank, 9,000 in Gaza (until 2005) and 16,000 on the Golan Heights? Many in the West think the Israeli government deliberately masterminded a settlement programme to ensure a permanent hold on disputed land. Others, including many on the Israeli left, blame the religious right for aggressively and often illegally creating settlements, against the will of the majority.

Gorenberg suggests a more scary third analysis: that Israel accidentally drifted into settlement because, in the decade following the 1967 war, no government took any firm decisions on the future of the territory conquered.

When Israel won the war, he says, the spectrum of government opinion ranged from Moshe Dayan — who was romantically attached to the biblical land and wanted to keep it all — to the more pragmatic Yigal Allon, who wanted to give back the areas heavily populated by Arabs. The dovish but nationalistic Arie Eliav wanted to give back most of it. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol needed to keep everyone happy, and avoided formulating a policy. In the vacuum, facts on the ground were created ad hoc.

Hebron was typical. When maverick Rabbi Moshe Levinger did not receive government approval to settle there, he got the army’s permission for a group to spend Seder night 1968 in a local hotel — and stayed. The government dithered, then finally approved, finding them other lodgings. That summer, the settlers tried to set up a kiosk in the town, and the army cancelled their residency permits. “The settlers entered the place as visitors and presented us all with a fait accompli,” Eshkol thundered. “Turning that behaviour into a system will undermine the authority of the military government.” But by the end of that month, the government set up a committee for settlement in Hebron, unwilling to challenge the nationalist sentiments driving the illegal activity. Meanwhile, Eshkol promoted a handful of settlements he believed in, Yigal Allon lent political and logistical support to wildcat settlers in the Golan and the government studiously avoided deciding definitive policy on the future of the occupied territories.

So when, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the messianic Gush Emunim movement began feverishly building Jewish outposts, often in areas with large Arab populations, the government could hardly object.

Successive governments had already condoned settlement beyond the Green line and stretched the law to that end. “In his memoirs, Rabin labelled Gush Emunim ‘a cancer in the body of Jewish democracy’, but it was a secondary malignancy,” writes Gorenberg. “The cancer had been metastasising for some time.”

Although his book ends in 1977, little has changed. The Israeli government has only rarely pursued a clear and consistent line on the settlement issue. And now Israel is headed by its weakest-ever prime minister and a coalition which is even more ideologically diverse than Labour’s in the late ‘60s.

As the events in Hebron this month show us, the government simply does not know what it wants.

This ambiguity creates confusion and constant struggle that has not, and does not, serve Israel’s interests well. Especially at this time, when there are substantial rumours about behind-the-scenes negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the government must be in control of events, its policies clear to its citizens and to its political partners. Setting and consistently implementing limits on Jewish settlement may be unpopular. But as Gershom Gorenberg demonstrates, abdicating authority in this most sensitive area is far, far more dangerous.

Miriam Shaviv is the Comment and Letters editor of the JC

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