|Settlers in an unauthorised settlement clash with Israeli police, after refusing to obey a court order to evacuate an illegal outpost in the West Bank [GALLO/GETTY]
In recent weeks, the relationship between Israel and the US has grown tense as the White House continues to demand a freeze on illegal settlement growth in the West Bank despite adamant refusal from Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, to do so.
For Israelis the row was embarrassing, but hardly a surprise. To a people already sharply divided over settlements and their place in the peace process, the feud was seen to mirror Israeli society’s inner conflicts.
Noga Martin, a former Israeli journalist, says that she hopes to see Palestinians form an independent state. But for this to happen, she says, “illegal outposts have to go”.
“They [illegal outposts] strike me as a completely unnecessary provocation that only throws fuel on the fire,” Martin says.
“I have no personal hatred toward the settlers,” she adds, “except for the ones who act violently.”
During the annual olive harvest, settlers sometimes attack Palestinian farmers and set fire to their groves. In Hebron, a Muslim-majority city in the West Bank with a small Jewish presence, tensions flare on a regular basis – with settlers throwing stones, garbage, wine, and bottles of urine at Palestinians.
“They seem to be doing anything possible to fan the flames,” Martin says of the settlers.
But there are sites of quiet provocation like Gilo, Pisgaat Zeev, and Givaat Zeev. All lie beyond the Green Line, the border drawn at the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In Palestinian eyes these Jewish communities are part of an Israeli land grab.
Jewish Israelis simply consider Gilo and Pisgaat Zeev neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. And Givaat Zeev, further out in the West Bank, is a suburb they say.
While Martin acknowledges that these areas are past the Green Line, she says: “No one would call Gilo or Pisgat Zeev a settlement, including me.”
Martin maintains that she does not support settlements. But if she accepts some, where does she draw the line?
“It is tough to say. Look, Gilo isn’t going anywhere, neither is Pisgat Zeev neither is Givaat Zeev. And even the larger settlement blocks beyond the Green Line [such as] Ariel. Let’s be realistic here. You can talk about what should happen and you can talk about what’s going to happen. Ariel is simply not going anywhere.”
According to Neve Gordon, author of Israel’s Occupation, Martin’s position is typical of Jewish Israelis.
“I think the settlements in many respects have been normalised,” Gordon says. “The discussion is no longer about settlements but outposts. Even Peace Now [a left-wing Israeli NGO that monitors and opposes settlement growth] is more concerned about counting outposts than settlements.”
Because this normalisation, or resignation to the physical status quo, is so widespread amongst Israeli adults, Gordon says most Israeli youth cannot differentiate between a so-called “neighbourhood” of Jerusalem, like Gilo, and a Jewish community lodged in the throat of the West Bank, like Ariel.
And when none of these places “register as something illegal,” Gordon explains, it creates de facto support. “Once they are no longer considered settlement, that’s it. The work has been done.”
Refusing settlement evacuation
|One poll holds that many Israelis would refuse the state’s order to evacuate settlements|
Gordon is troubled by other trends, however. He points to a recent poll conducted by the Israeli research institution Maagar Mochot, which was published in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot.
The study found that 81 per cent of high school age religious students and 36 per cent of their secular counterparts would refuse army orders to evacuate West Bank settlements and outposts.
“That is an amazing figure,” Gordon says.
But Tamar Hermann, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, is slightly encouraged by a survey she concluded late last week.
A poll of Jewish Israeli adults found many are not as supportive of the settlement project as conventional wisdom would hold.
“The population is split, we do not have a consensus.”
Hermann says: “We asked if we had a [peace] agreement [with the Palestinians], and the conflict was terminated, under this would you [the respondent] be willing to evacuate all settlements? Forty-two per cent said ‘yes’, 48 per cent said ‘no'”
Herman says she was surprised by the data and had expected the number of those who said ‘yes’ to be much lower. “A month ago, before we ran the survey, we would have thought 25 to 30 per cent [would say yes].”
The gap between the two groups, she adds, is statistically insignificant. This suggests that Israeli society is evenly divided on the issue and could tip either way.
And there was another unexpected result – a plurality of 49 per cent supports the idea of Israeli authorities offering compensation to settlers who choose to relocate within the Green Line. “[This number] is higher than we used to have,” Hermann explained.
Is the tide turning?
“It’s speculation, but I think that the ongoing discussion between the United States and the Israeli government that the settlements are an impediment [to the peace process] are starting to infiltrate into the Israeli psyche,” Hermann says.
Uriel Abulof, an assistant professor in Tel Aviv University’s department of political science, agrees that Israeli public opinion is changing, but says the tide may be turning for the worst.
“In the mind of many [Jewish Israelis] world opinion is increasingly challenging the notion of a Jewish state,” he says.
Jewish Israelis, Abulof explains, point to the chain of events after the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.
Following the military withdrawal and the eviction of over 8000 settlers from the Strip, Israel continued to find itself under rocket fire from Hamas, a political organisation that has questioned the Jewish state’s right to exist.
Operation Cast Lead, widely considered an act of self-defence by Jewish Israelis, was met with international outrage – with the criticism falling most heavily on the Jewish state.
“[This] led to the conclusion that, perhaps, [the international community] is seeking more than the relinquishing of the occupation – the relinquishing of the Jewish state [itself],” Abulof says.
He believes that such perceptions convince Jewish Israelis to adopt a siege mentality: ‘The world is against us. If the world is against us then all we can do is simply to be as strong and resilient as possible’, the belief goes.
While this may not lead directly to settlement growth, Abulof says such existential fears are likely to cement Israeli forces in the West Bank.
|The presence of Israeli soldiers in Palestinian cities like Hebron, emboldens settlers [AFP]|
Many observers also point to the presence of the Israeli military in the settlements as a measure which emboldens settlers.
Seth Freedman, co-author of the forthcoming book 40 Years in the Wilderness, an intensive look at the settlers, says: “On a practical level, you have people defending you and it makes you feel legitimate.”
Those in large settlements just east of the Green Line, like Gilo and Pisgat Zeev, feel the tacit support of the Israeli public; those deeper in the West Bank feel buoyed by the army.
“When we visited the outposts, the settlers told us: ‘On the one hand, the government calls us illegal; on the other hand, they provide us the tools to keep doing it’,” Freedman said of the settler ideology.
As Israel feels increasingly embattled, Freedman says: “The settlers feel stronger.”
But the divisions persist, sometimes leaving some Israelis feeling conflicted.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Jerusalem business owner told Al Jazeera that he was “attacked” by his wife, adult children, and other family members after expressing unconventional beliefs regarding a one-state solution.
“I wasn’t against the situation where [settlers] go and live on a hilltop,” he says, referring to illegal outposts.
“Just like I wasn’t against Palestinians who want to live here. I thought it was a good idea to have Israelis and Palestinians make one state … with the same rights [for Jews and Arabs].”
Due to the reactions of his loved ones, however, he is reconsidering whether a one-state solution should be the way forward.