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Settlements fuel war’s fire in Middle East


One of the central elements in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the continuing encroachment of Israeli settlement on the territories Israel won in the 1967 war. Originally described to the Israeli public as a bargaining chip for peace, the territories have become a new battleground in which Israeli settlers, supported and sponsored by the Israeli government, vie with Palestinians for control over a contested patrimony.

Many of the settlers who move to the occupied territories do so because of the generous economic inducements offered by the Israeli government. Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said the costs of settlements are buried so deeply in different line items in the Israeli budget that probably even Israel’s budget-makers would find it impossible to tease out the total cost to Israel of building and defending settlements. In its March-April report on Israeli settlements, the foundation said the 2002 Israeli budget includes $64 million for incentives for home ownership, which includes grants up to $20,000 and soft loans up to $8,000 to homebuyers in the territories. Citing figures quoted by Mossi Raz of the Meretz Party, the foundation reported that personal income tax breaks for settlers come to $106 million in the budget.

Economic perks for settlers come in a wide array of other forms as well. They include educational subsidies, access roads for settler use only, constructed on confiscated Palestinian land, and grants to local government councils that in 2000 were eight times the amount given to poorer Jewish communities in Israel. The foundation quotes the daily Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, which reported in an article printed Dec. 27, 2001, that the average investment per capita in regional (government) authorities in the occupied territories is $1,773 annually, nearly three times the sum spent per capita inside the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border.

Settlers who move to the occupied territories do so at the risk of becoming targets of Palestinians militants, who see the settlers as the front lines of the Israeli military, a way in which the Israeli government tries to block or at least minimize any future Palestinian state. Nonetheless, the number of settlers living in the occupied territories has doubled since the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993, jumping from 200,000 to 400,000. This includes new settlements in East Jerusalem, where Jewish neighborhoods have been constructed to ring the Palestinian portion of the city.

If economic benefits lure the majority of settlers to the occupied territories, religion and ideology drive others. For these settlers, any peace plan that would give up territory won in the 1967 war would violate important religious and nationalist aspirations.

“This is the heart of the land of Israel. This land is land Jews lived on until we were thrown out of the land of Israel,” said David Wilder, an American who immigrated to Israel 25 years ago and now lives in a settlement in Hebron on the West Bank.

Like many settlers, Wilder is unbending in his opposition to the Oslo accords.

“A journalist once asked me to define in one word how I react when I hear the word ‘Oslo,’ and I said ‘suicide.’ The whole concept behind Oslo is the destruction of the state of Israel,” said Wilder, who questions why settlers living in Hebron are thought of differently from Israeli residents living in, say, Tel Aviv.

Daniel Yossef, a teacher who lives in the Tekoa settlement on the West Bank, is also critical of the Oslo peace accords. Founder of a group called Peace for Generations, which he described as a grassroots pressure group, Yossef advocates an approach to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence that eliminates what he believes is the gamble with Israel’s future the Oslo peace agreement involves, yet recognizes the legitimacy of both Palestinian and Israeli claims to a common land. Polls show rising numbers of Israelis, now almost 50 percent, support deportation of Palestinians as a solution to Israel’s perceived security needs. Yossef said he unequivocally rejects this, though he added he could understand how recent violence propels extremism.

“The vision of the Israeli left is flawed,” Yossef said. “So is the vision of the Israeli right because there is no long-term vision. The Palestinians are here and you can’t ignore that fact. The right’s creative thinking stops with imposing its will on the Palestinians.

“We are against every hint of transferring people,” said Yossef. “This is the homeland of the Jewish people and also of those who identify themselves as Palestinian people. There should be one land and two systems. Why does Israel and the world always think in terms of Solomon’s division? The true mother is the one who says let’s save the child.”

Yossef talks about instituting a win-win solution in which both Israelis and Palestinians would have their own state on the same land. Two parliaments, two educational systems, two names even for the same country. Yossef said one side of a coin could be called Palestine and the other Israel. He is organizing a conference in the fall that would bring together a wide array of world thinkers and leaders to discuss this and other possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

Yossef’s endorsement of what could be described as an apartheid system is open to criticism along those lines, but Connie Hackbarth, a media officer at the Alternative Information Center who positions herself on the liberal end of the political spectrum, credits him with a willingness to engage more creatively with the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship than is common on the Israeli right.

Since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office in February 2001, 34 new settlements have been constructed in the occupied territories, according to a report in March by the Israeli group Peace Now, which charged that the new settlements violate the coalition agreement between the Israeli political parties in the current government.

William Quandt, a professor of government at the University of Virginia who served on the National Security Council during the Nixon and Carter administrations, said most American presidents have opposed settlement construction in the occupied territories. Few have been successful at arresting it, however.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has made a freeze on settlement construction a condition for any cease-fire. The Mitchell Plan proposed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell also called for Israel to cease settlement construction as a trust-building measure. In an April 4 address on the Mideast, President George W. Bush demanded an end to settlement construction.

But the addition of two right-wing parties to the Israeli government in early April makes it more unlikely that the current Israeli government will put a halt to settlement construction of its own volition, even should Sharon wish to. As the prime architect of the settlement movement, Sharon is considered hostile to any plan to slow or curtail settlement development.

“At the present moment there’s no distinction between the settlers and the government,” said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, a California rabbi who has studied the settler movement and who lived in Israel after the 1967 war, when the settler movement began. “Sharon is the architect of the settler movement, and he’s the practical engineer of the idea that there is no room for the Arabs to live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in their own political entity. They can live there as laborers and choppers of wood and drawers of water but only if they eschew any political aspirations.”

As recently as mid-January, Sharon stated to a delegation of settler women, “I don’t see myself evacuating any settlement, not in the short term, in the context of interim agreements, and not in the long term, in the context of a permanent agreement.”

“Sharon’s ambition is to cement Israeli control over all the land of what he calls Greater Israel,” said Wilcox of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “The reason for settlements is to maintain Israeli control, and the early architects of the settlements realized that neither the Israeli public nor the rest of the world would understand or tolerate a permanent armed occupation of the occupied territories.”

Dismantling settlements may be unpopular with the Israeli population, but Wilcox contends, “American interests are on the line here. Peace requires an end to the settlements.”

Margo Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2002