Nachshon Rothstein, Aslan Media - Amid the myriad impediments to peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, what has most caught the public’s eye is the recent “price tag” acts of violence and vandalism committed by West Bank settlers. The aggression recently reached a terrible climax when a settler set fire to a mosque in Yasuf. Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres and other top Israeli politicians and communal leaders unequivocally and strongly denounced the attack as contrary to Jewish and Israeli values. Still, given the history of the settlers, such shock seems disingenuous.
In the 1920s, Jews settled land in former Judea and Samaria, purchasing it from Arabs. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, many of these towns were abandoned when their inhabitants fled the bloodshed. After the war, Jordan occupied the region that became known as the West Bank, until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War placed it under direct Israeli military control.
Intending to transform the West Bank into a buffer zone, Israel began allowing Israeli settlers to rebuild and repopulate villages such as Gush Etzion and Hebron. But it was not until after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that the Israeli government instituted a policy of strategic settlement over the West Bank.
Fueled as much by economic need as by religious zealotry, large settlements began springing up all over the West Bank. Under the leadership of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (pronounced ‘cook’) and Hanan Porat, a new political movement of messianic Jews called Gush Emunim led the charge to settle all the Palestinian lands as the first step to rebuilding what is known as Eretz Yisrael, or Biblical Israel (a land that encompasses not only the West Bank but also parts of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Sinai).
Gush Emunim’s ultimate goal was to reclaim the ancient Jewish homeland and remove from it any trace of an Arab population. Despite their controversial objectives, Gush Emunim attracted a large corp of religious and politically reactionary Jews, a majority of them Anglo-Israelis newly arrived from Europe and the United States and brimming with religious fervor.
The Israeli government’s strategy evolved over time. Initially it saw the settlers as a sort of “human shield,” being the first to die in the event of another attack, but also the first alarm to mobilize the IDF, to avoid military casualties. Moreover, with settlements lined near the Jordanian border, Jordanians were less likely to encroach on Israeli-controlled territory—and so less likely to begin any act of aggression.
Yet after the advent of the First Palestinian Intifada, Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza became untenable. It was clear to all that the Palestinian people would never submit to Israeli occupation. Eventually Israel would need to trade land for peace. But before it began peace negotiations, Israel launched an aggressive land grab policy, approving a host of new settlements as leverage. This transformed the settlers into political pawns to give Israel an advantage in the event of land swaps with a future Palestine.
As the peace process continued to flail from Oslo in 1993 to the failed 2000 Camp David Summit, moderate Israelis stopped believing in the potential for peace with the Palestinians and the country began to shift politically to the right. Given the string of suicide attacks on civilian locations, the abduction of Israeli soldiers, and Hamas’ rise in popularity, the settlers they once considered a national embarrassment did not seem so terrible by comparison.
Even when settler Baruch Goldstein entered a mosque and shot and killed nearly thirty worshippers and wounded scores more, Israel considered settler violence an anomaly. Now as then, a minority of settler leaders denounce anti-Palestinian violence, and a majority remain silent. Yet the “price tag” movement, which originated after a government mandated settlement freeze in 2007, underscores settler aggression’s approaching tipping point.
The movement began with a group of radical settlers who warned the government that the settlements freeze would come with a high “price tag” in the form of violence toward Palestinians and those Israelis who supported an end to settlement activity. Price tag actions have included attacks on Arab civilians and mosques as well as vandalism of IDF property. In the past Israel has turned a blind eye to these actions; in isolated incidents, individual soldiers even facilitated price tag attacks. However, the government’s views changed when Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the price tag movement “Jewish terrorists” and likened their actions to acts of terror.
Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (himself a settler) continue to approve new and ongoing settlement construction, which the price tag movement obviously supports. Some say that Netanyahu is trying to fan the settlers’ flames as an attempt to pressure Abbas into capitulating. At the same time, Israel’s political right seems to explicitly approve of the settlers’ actions as a sort of “measure for measure” policy. Many are furious over Hamas’ role in a future State of Palestine and the Palestinians’ tacit approval of armed resistance.
Israel may continue settlement growth until they cover nearly the entire West Bank, leaving Israel radicalized and internationally isolated. Yet in the likelihood of a future peace treaty, only the Israeli right will be to blame for the the cost of uprooting the large, angry, and embittered settlers, and incorporating them into the mainstream Israeli population. As of now, the settlers embody Israel’s latest existential crisis.
Nachshon Rothstein is a contributor for Aslan Media.
This article originally appeared at Aslan Media. It is reprinted here with permission.
Photo: [Michael.Loadenthal, Flickr]