Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories

I recommend Gershom Gorenberg’s The Accidental Empire (Times Books 2006) highly.  Nominally, it is the story of Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and Sinai from 1967-1977.  In fact, it is much more than that.

Israel’s borders (and in fact Israel’s existence) have never been accepted by much of the world.  There was no peace treaty following the seven nation 1948 attack, and none following the Six Day War of 1967, when Israel found itself unexpectedly in control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula.

Today, the situation remains unclear with regard to most of this territory.  Sinai reverted to Egypt in 1979, as a result of a peace treaty negotiated by Egypt with Israel’s right wing government under Menachem Begin, but the peace between the countries is “cold” at best.  Israel unilaterally pulled its military forces from Gaza (and required all Jewish settlers to leave) a few years ago, but the result was the election of the Hamas run government in Gaza that continues to call for, and act towards, Israel’s destruction, resulting in continual clashes and Israeli security measures that have had the effect of further isolating and impoverishing the Gaza population.  And the West Bank remains under a strange amalgam of Israeli and PLO control, just as it now contains a mix of Jewish and Arab citizens, with its future as unclear as (or maybe even more unclear than) ever.

How did things get this way?  The story that Gorenberg tells in such fascinating detail is in fact a simple one.  Israelis started to settle in these areas because the Israeli government had no policy for them not to do so.  Not because the government had any clear policies encouraging settlement; it just didn’t have many laws against it, and tended not to enforce those that were on the books.

At the end of the fighting in 1967, Israel found its army in these territories.  The Egyptian authorities were not in Sinai, the Syrian government was not in the Golan Heights, the occupying power Jordan was not on the West Bank, and the occupying power Egypt was (probably to is satisfaction) no longer in Gaza.

The Israelis were not prepared for this.  On an emotional level, the “liberation” of east Jerusalem was welcomed with joy and tears.  Most Israelis did not want to see the city re-divided.  But what about the rest of the territory?

At first, everyone believed that the occupation was temporary, that things needed to be stabilized, and that the existence of the occupation itself would make it more likely that there could be a treaty with the neighboring countries that could lead to peace, recognition and stability.  This was not to be, as it became clear that no one was willing to sign a treaty with Israel that would recognize its right to exist.

The government temporized, allowing for time for alternative concepts to be developed and discussed amongst the Israeli officialdom and population.  Some concepts, such as those developed by military/governmental officials such as Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan, were based primarily on security concerns – suggesting that a portion of the land needed to be retained so that future wars were less likely.  As it turned out, however, Allon and Dayan had very different ideas of what was needed for security, so their plans did not mesh with each other, and each of their plans garnered passionate support from various quarters.  As the years went on, and the security need of the country were discussed and analyzed further, variations of these plans developed, multiplying the ideas as to what would be appropriate.

Unfortunately, these suggestions (and the internal disagreements that they fostered) were a form of arguing with oneself, because none of the surrounding countries were willing to discuss any such plans.  The most flexible of these countries, Jordan, which had regular sub-rosa discussions with Israel, was unwilling to consider anything that did not return all the land (and was unwilling to give Israel full recognition, rather than some non-belligerency status).  So, you see, it is not only the Israelis who shoot themselves in the foot.

While these debates occurred, other forces developed in Israel, and security was not always the most important consideration as to the future of the occupied territories.  For one thing, the pioneering spirit in Israel remained strong and there were those who said, simply:  Look, there is all that land, no one is there, we need space, we control it, let’s move in.  At first, the government objected, but then compromised if there could be any possible security argument for a particular settlement.  In part, of course, these were manufactured security/military reasons, subconsciously designed to fool the world, and to fool even those political leaders who supported the settlements.

Later, the military pretext was more or less dropped, and other factors crept in.  Take Hebron, for example, where the argument was that Jews had always lived here, why shouldn’t they live here now?  And the army protected small groups of Jews who moved in (in theory knowing that one day they might be living under Arab rule), and the small group grew, and soon, it was not a few families in the heart of Hebron, but the large settlement of Kiryat Arba growing up in the hills.

Then there was the religious movement, with its inspiration in Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, who believed that the formation of the state and the 1967 victory were all Messianic movements that needed to be followed without regard to what might appear pragmatic, and whose leader was perhaps American born Moshe Levinger, an Orthodox Jew who would simply not take no for an answer.  And then there were the student movements, and the movements among particulary the religious students, all eager to join the pioneering effort to expand, and secure the land of Israel.  After all, the West Bank is filled with sights of historic consequence to the Jewish religion and the Jewish people; there are more biblical sights in the West Bank than there are in the remainder of Israel (Jerusalem excepted).

During this period, it became of course less and less likely that Israel would pull out of these areas.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews now lived in the West Bank, prosperous communities had developed in the Golan, agricultural communities had developed in southern Gaza with an eye towards the construction of a major port at Yamit, and even in northern Sinai and along the Red Sea coast, Jewish communities were being created.

At long last, pressure to secure Jerusalem arose, which led to large scale developments, no longer ideological in any sense, to house thousands of families who work in Israel proper, and which now surround the city.  These were built will full government support.

The lesson is that the inability of Israel to decide in the early years on a firm course of action, in part caused by the refusal of its neighbors to deal with the issue at all except on clearly unacceptable terms, led to small (at first) and then large numbers of settlers moving in, either without government support (but where government did not move them out), or where the government simply turned a blind eye, or eventually with full government support.  And all of this occured under “left-wing” Labor governments, in theory the types of governments which one would have thought would have been best able to work something out with the Arabs.

When Likud and Menachem Begin took over in 1977 (after Labor split), the course had been set, and the new government was clearly behind the settlement policy, and the numbers grew.  Yet it was the Begin government that forced the evacuation of the Jewish settlements in the Sinai to obtain a peace treaty with Egypt, just as it was 25 years or so later the Sharon government that required the abandonment of the settlements in Gaza.  So, the world continues to work in strange ways.

When Amos Oz gave the address we heard on “Israel at 60” this spring in Beer Sheva, he talked about Israel being the product not of one dream, but of many dreams, some of which were in absolute conflict with each other.  So it was with Israeli settlement policy.  For things to have worked out any differently, there would have had to have been an early determination to allow no settlement whatsoever.  Once the door was opened for settlement to benefit security, the door was opened, and the longer it remained open, the more people who walk, run, drive or sneak through it.

So, there were a lot of small decisions involved here, but the small decisions only followed the pattern that had already been started.  It has led to problems, to be sure, which still are unresolved and at one time, the decisions seemed clearly wrong.  But look at Gaza.  There are no Israelis in Gaza, and the situation there is now much worse (for everyone) than when the Israelis were there (and of course things were bad then).  And look what happened when the Israelis stopped protecting the Lebanon frontier (a subject not discussed in the book).  So who can say what is right and what is wrong, and what is inevitable?

If the Arab neighbors were rational, the problems could be solved (even if many Israelis themselves lack rational motivation), but they still are not.  And they may never be.

So what is Israel to do, say, about Gaza today?  Right now, they are in a holding pattern, fighting off small rocket attacks, and keeping most of the people in Gaza from living anything close to acceptable lives.  Is there an alternative here?

And what about, jumping over boundaries for a moment, Iran and its potential nuclear capacity.  The Jerusalem Post this morning says that Israel is considering a go it alone attack on Tehran’s nuclear facilities.  I hope this is not correct, but it might be.  I think this would be disastrous, but would it?  And would ignoring Iran be a recipe for more disaster?  And would such an attack really be undertaken by Israel without secret support from the US, and Britan, and maybe even some of the more western friendly Arab countries?

(Sorry, I know this last paragraph is a diversion, but it is on my mind.)

It is too bad that Gorenberg’s book ends in 1977, although the next 30 years are probably very similar to the first 10.  The book is very interesting, and very readable.  He discusses the personalities of the people involved in addition to the following the general history of what really occurred, and how much of it was not “accidental” (which I think is the wrong word), but certainly “unplanned”.


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