Colonising the Holy Land

What the international community calls the daylight robbery of Palestinian land is a holy cause for Israel's religious fringe


    Photos of settlers forcibly
    being removed shocked
    Israelis in the early 1980s

    When Israeli newspapers released photographs in the early 1980s showing Israeli soldiers forcibly removing Jewish settlers from their homes in the illegal settlement of Yamit in the Sinai, they elicited outrage in Israel.

    Despite the dismantling of Yamit and all other settlements in the Sinai being a condition of the 1982 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, the violent transfer of Jews by Jews sent shock waves through Israeli society.


    The Sinai Peninsula's minimal religious or national significance in the Zionist historical narrative coupled with the euphoria created by the prospect of peace eclipsed the dismay that was felt. All the same, Israelis made a mental note of the event and the defiant settlement entered the national consciousness as a symbol of defeat.


    But Yamit has a place in the Palestinian historical narrative too: an example of thwarted expansion for Israel and a rare case in which international law was applied.


    “Yamit and the other settlements in the Sinai were there for security reasons, says Khalil Toufakji, a settlements expert at Orient House in Jerusalem who participated in the Oslo talks. “In the end, the peace process led to their destruction.”


    'Ground Zero'


    Today, Israel's outposts, many of which have attained the status of bustling towns, are considered one of the most problematic issues standing in the way of a final settlement of the Middle East conflict. Competing national narratives jostle each other at ground zero, where tidy, red-roofed villas and apartment buildings house Israeli settlers on expropriated Palestinian land.


    A Jewish settler woman walks through
    Havat Gilad, an illegal settlement, before
    it was dismantled

    “It's quite straightforward,” says Dr Shlomo Swirski, the director of the Budget Analysis Programme at the ADVA Centre which looks at social justice in Israel. “Overfunding the settlements is a form of preferential treatment given by Israel’s governments to settlers in the territories."


    While the establishment of colonies on land that has been militarily occupied goes against international law, many religious and ultra-nationalist Jews view settlements as an exercise in replanting Jewish communities in the areas they refer to Judea and Samaria, the Biblical names for the territories known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.


    The settlement drive began in 1967 as Israeli politicians rushed to put facts on the ground of the newly-conquered Palestinian territories. Activity boomed in the late 1970s and the early 1990s, on both occasions under current Israeli Prime Minister Sharon.

    Sharon led the renewed building of settlements in the territories and the accelerated construction of homes for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, earning a special place in the hearts of the settler lobby.


    For the Palestinians, settlements are less a part of the narrative of nationhood and more a straightforward tool to exact political concessions and economic benefits from them. Even as the settlements' presence is explained away by Biblical claims to the land, their effects are purely political and economic.


    Two-track policy: Building housing units
    for Israelis while razing Palestinian homes

    Their purpose is twofold – a long-term, sophisticated land-grab of areas situated in the West Bank and the provision of security for Israel’s hinterland. Backed by generous government subsidies, settlements have sprouted all over the occupied territories in the past 30 years.


    “Most Israeli governments have worked with the intention of taking hold of the Palestinian territories or a part of them," says Swirski. "This is why they give their support to settlements so even when the degree of preference is decreased, the overfunding remains."


    If the settlements' placing has the pragmatic purpose of steadily expropriating Palestinian land and controlling water acquifers in the West Bank, their historical justification is far less convoluted.


    "The settler mentality is that this land has belonged to them for 3,000 years, that the Palestinians occupied it at some point and it was liberated in 1967," says Toufakji. "They see this as their land and believe they have every right to build on it."


    Sharon loses few opportunities to make this point. He recently said in an interview about the peace process that the prospect of relinquishing what he referred to as some areas closely associated with “Jewish history” was painful.

    “We are talking about the cradle of Jewish civilisation. Our whole history is bound up with these places. Bethlehem, Shiloh and Beit El,” he said.


    Israeli women soldiers remove settlers
    from an illegal outpost

    “And I know we will have to part with some of these places. There will be a parting from places that are connected to the whole course of our history. As a Jew, this agonises me,” he added.


    If Yamit, a small, 20-year old settlement in the Sinai could be the cause of so much national soul-searching, one can only imagine the impact on the Palestinian national identity of the destruction of hundreds of ancient Palestinian villages.


    Flourishing settlements


    Israel’s founding signalled the end for over 400 Palestinian villages that were located in present-day Israel. Their demise, although well documented, received little publicity.


    In an example of hard-nosed realpolitik, many of the Israeli settlements of the West Bank and Gaza Strip were erected next to the Palestinian communities they displaced.

    Since older settler sites usually had a locational asset – water-supply, good soil, defensibility, transportation – new Jewish settlements were usually built adjacent to an older site.


    The centuries-old houses of Palestinians in what would later become an expanded Jewish quarter of the old city were demolished following Israel's takeover of East Jerusalem in 1967.


    Today, the settlements that replaced Palestine's vacant villages are irredeemably tied up with Israel's national identity.

    Even as the majority of Israel’s population recognises that settlements are an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians and seeks their dismantling, Israel’s political establishment continues to lavish resources on them.


    Usually, the aid is provided indirectly. Toufakji says that 'tax-breaks, education, the pretext of security" are all means utilised to put "a huge amount of money" into settlers' pockets and make the prospect of promoting the Israeli government's colonisation plan more attractive.


    Israel's religious, nationalistic right has
    inflamed Palestinians through their actions

    Although most of the money comes from the Ministry of Housing, a portion of the defence budget is also allocated to promoting settlement activity. Besides Israeli government help, foreign benefactors contribute large sums that are largely untraceable.


    Israeli and Palestinian commentators point to the powerful settlement lobby as the single most pertinent reason for the large subsidies they receive from the government.

    "It's the story of Pygmalion. The government created the settlements, they became strong and began influencing the government. Now you have interplay between the two entities,” says Swirski.


    "They derive their influence from their belief that the settlement project tops the Israeli government's list of priorities, that they are the future and security of Israel. They also now count 200,000 people. It's both an ideological feeling of strength and demographics."


    Israeli economist Dr Aryeh Arnon says it is a purely political question.


    "The settler lobby is the strongest pressure group within the Israeli government, strong enough to pressure the government out of reducing the funding of the settlements in the budget. Indicative of this is that despite the enormous recent cuts in welfare, the reduction in settlement funding is non-existent."

    Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been
    the main backer of settlement expansion in
    occupied Palestinian lands

    "All the settlement projects for the past 30 years have been a political project led by those who believe Israel should have full sovereignty over West Bank and Gaza," says Arnon.


    "This kind of political thinking no longer makes sense in recent years when public opinion has turned against this kind of thinking but the settlement lobby is among the most powerful forces in Israel's politics."


    A survey conducted by the Israeli arm of marketing information group Taylor Nelson Sofres last April, showed that more than a third of Israelis supported the removal of all or most illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory to achieve "a true and comprehensive peace".

    "It’s one of the puzzles of Israeli politics," says Arnon. "Despite the majority of Israelis having agreed to cut away some of the settlements in exchange for peace, they remain.”


    So politicised an issue has the funding of settlements become that it precipitated the disintegration of the Israeli government in October last year, when the Labor Party pulled out of the governing coalition in protest at budget funding for the settlements.


    The new budget maintained funding for Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories even as it cut down on welfare spending.


    Nationalistic settlers claim that large
    swathes of the West Bank are Israel's

    After the passage of the budget, Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put a nationalist spin on the controversy and warned that support for his pro-settlement budget would be “the real test of national responsibility for politicians from all parties.”

    Today, with the latest-instalment of the US-backed peace process - US President George W Bush's 'Road Map' - being touted as the panacea to the region's ills, Orient Houses' Toufakji gives this example as proof of Israel's insincerity when discussing peace.


    "Between 1967 and 1992, Israel built 32,000 housing units in the West Bank and installed 105,000 settlers in them. Since the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1992, Israel has put up 29,000 housing units and the number of settlers has expanded from 105,000 to 218,000."


    "The Israeli vision," Toufakji continues, "is to annex 10 per cent of the West Bank, 80 per cent of the settlements and 70 per cent of the settlers. That way, they will maintain control of the acquifers, 80 per cent of all the settlers and 70 per cent of the settlements."


    "Furthermore, this 10 percent of the West Bank means cutting the West Bank into four pieces because it stretches from Israel to the Jordan valley. So, losing this 10 per cent is very dangerous."



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