West Bank Jews dig in, but resolve crumbling

The settlers feel that the threat of violence is largely a political strategy


They are fervent believers that there is a divine plan requiring them to hold this land. With many of them armed and all of them furious over the 2005 withdrawal of Jews from Gaza and four West Bank settlements, they live by the slogan: “Never forget! Never forgive!” The building of a Palestinian state would require them to move, and Israelis fear that any attempt to force them out could cause a bloody internal clash.

But scores of interviews over several months, including with settler firebrands, produced a different conclusion. Divided, leaderless and increasingly mystical, such settlers will certainly resist evacuation but are unlikely to engage in organised armed conflict with the Israeli military. Their belief that history can be best understood as a series of confrontations between the Jews and those who seek their destruction make them hesitant to turn against their own, even in dire circumstances.

“We are idealists, but we are not crazy,” said Ayelet Sandak, who was removed from her Gaza settlement home and is helping to build an unauthorised outpost, Maoz Esther, with the goal of both expanding the Jewish presence and diverting the military.

As part of its commitment to a two-state solution, Israel has promised to dismantle two dozen outposts like this one in the coming months. The Obama administration’s West Asia envoy, George J Mitchell, is back in the region trying to set up a summit meeting for new peace talks. Yet officials have been slow to act on these outposts, worried that the move could break this society in two.

Certainly, some settler leaders speak in ominous tones. “They’ll have to kill us to get us out of here,” said Itay Zar, founder of Havat Gilad, sitting in the outpost’s unpaved central square, a pink sun setting over the majestic Samarian hills before dropping into the Mediterranean.

But interviews with settlers suggest that the threat of violence is largely a political strategy. The great majority say they realise that if the bulldozers arrive, their fight is over.

“We cannot allow ourselves to wait until the soldiers are at our doors,” noted David Ha’ivri, a spokesman for the northern West Bank settlers. “We must prepare strategic maneuvers in advance.”

By that, he mostly means politics. If the soldiers do come, the settlers are unlikely to fight. “People won’t leave their homes peacefully, but they will not shoot soldiers,” predicted Shaul Goldstein, who is the head of the regional council of the Gush Etzion settler bloc and is considered a moderate.

A senior Israeli general in the West Bank agreed. He said the army is awaiting orders to evacuate the two dozen outposts and is preparing for everything, including soldier refusal and settler bloodshed directed both at Palestinians and security forces. But, he added, speaking under army rules of anonymity: “I don’t think there will be a lot of resistance. Deep inside, most settlers love Israel and love the Israeli army.”

That assertion may seem surprising, especially after the army’s removal of 8,000 settlers from Gaza four years ago, an operation that burns in the hearts of the settler community. But there are several reasons to take it seriously.

First, the Gaza operation splintered the settlers, discrediting the traditional leaders in the eyes of the new generation. Second, many settlers believe that they and their supporters are inheriting the mantle of Zionism, so promoting an internal war would be counterproductive. Finally, the direction that many of the most radical settlers have taken has been toward the esoteric, not combat.

Blood has been spilled on both sides. Many of the West Bank outposts were set up in what the settlers called a ‘Zionist response’ to Palestinian attacks. Havat Gilad was established after Zar’s brother, Gilad, was killed by Palestinian gunmen in 2001. Zar says the outpost sits on land bought by his father, Moshe Zar, a well-known West Bank land dealer who was himself convicted of belonging to a Jewish underground that killed and maimed Palestinians in the early 1980s.

At the same time, the younger ideological settlers are increasingly mystical and have little concern about whether they are causing conflict. They view their goals to be at the centre of global history. Beards and sidelocks are longer than in the past, and the fringed shawl and phylacteries normally reserved for morning prayer are now worn by some all day long.

Key to salvation

There are 3,00,000 settlers in the West Bank, and they are not monolithic. A third are politically and socially indistinguishable from most of Israel and moved there for suburban-style housing and close-knit communities. Another third are ultra-Orthodox and do not consider themselves setters or Zionists, wanting only to live together in an appropriate environment somewhere in Israel.

The remaining 1,00,000 are ideologically committed to staying. They have a fairly uniform view of the situation: Most believe that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation; that if the world wants a state for Palestinians, it should set it up next door in Jordan; that all of the West Bank, which they call by the biblical name Judea and Samaria, is a central part of the Jewish homeland; and that Arabs will do everything they can to destroy Israel in any borders, so staying in the West Bank is a matter not only of history but of security.

While the ultra-Orthodox say life comes above all else, ideological settlers say that holding onto what they consider the entire land of Israel is the essence of life; through redemption of this land comes Jewish salvation.

But half of them live in settlement blocs close to the boundary with Israel that are likely to remain in a deal involving land swaps with the Palestinians. Ideological settlers who live deep in the West Bank number about 50,000.

All this has compounded the settlers’ conviction that no Israeli government would risk a similar undertaking in the West Bank. But as international pressure for a Palestinian state here grows, there is deep worry.

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