West Bank Settlements Obstruct Peace: Israel’s Empire State Building

from Logos 1.4 – Fall 2002

Why is it so hard to make peace in the Middle East? The greatest barrier is the Israeli settlements—these are both the motivation and engine of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Three decades of objections from the United States and Europe have achieved nothing. The rapid expansion of Israeli settlements—all illegal—has undermined Palestinian attempts at nation building. If they continue to spread, they will end the Israel that its founders envisioned. As Israel makes more incursions into the Palestinian cities, it has placed new restrictions on the movement of their people and goods, stifling the economy. Oslo has ended. And still Israeli settlements increase and expand, in violation of all international resolutions. The settlement drive and its ideology have become a cornerstone of modern Israeli national identity. The policy of settlements and the current violence they are breeding have transcended the country’s ethnic and religious divides to create a new Israelism based on a new Jewish nationalism. The setters and their allies are recreating Israel in their own image: as a theocracy in permanent conflict. Under the government of Ariel Sharon and with the explicit support of President George W. Bush, this process is becoming a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy.


These new settlers are nothing like their predecessors of the pre-1948 generation who founded Zionism and formed the state as a secular, socialist and mainly European enterprise. The post-1967 settlers are predominantly religious, conservative, Reagan-style neo-liberals. And unlike their predecessors, their settlement activity is state-sponsored by Israel. The new Zionists (or post-Zionists) believe that for their Greater Israel nationalism project to succeed, another campaign of ethnic cleansing will be necessary. Many members of Sharon’s cabinet are already speaking about “transfer”—the collective expulsion of the Palestinians.

Worse, former general Efi Eitam, a newly appointed minister and leader of the National Religious Party, is a supporter of settlements. Though Eitam was once a Labor supporter, he has now said that transfer is politically “enticing,” though not realistic without war. In that case, he says: “Not many Arabs would remain.” And Eitam has in fact called for war on Iraq and Iran through Israeli pre-emptive strikes.1

Sharon has admitted that without the settlements, the army would have left long ago. But the settlements have a great advantage: they enable Israeli leaders to convince ordinary people that their military is not a foreign army ruling a foreign population. In 1977, when Sharon chaired the ministerial committee for settlement affairs, he oversaw the establishment of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. He planned to settle 2 million Jews there. A quarter of a century later Sharon remains adamant that Israel has a “moral right” to transform the demography of these territories. Since his election in January 2001, Sharon has built 35 new settlements.2

In the second half of the 1970s, during the transition from a Labor to Likud government, Sharon emerged as a leader capable of realizing the dream of a Greater Israel beyond Israel’s internationally recognized borders. Shimon Peres’s encouragement to Israelis to settle everywhere in the occupied territories strengthened Sharon’s drive to implement the program of the influential bipartisan (Likud/Labor) Greater Land of Israel movement, which foresaw an Israel spreading from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.

The number of settlers in the occupied territories outside East Jerusalem has increased from 7,000 in 1977 to over 200,000 in 2002—plus 200,000 others in East Jerusalem. Their 200 settlements take up 1.7% of the West Bank, but they control 41.9% of it.3 Many of these settlers are armed and dangerous fanatics with a shoot-to-kill license from the Israeli army. Over the years, settlers’ death squads have attacked unarmed civilians, gunned down elected officials and tortured and killed many other Palestinians.

[pullquote]During the Oslo peace process, Israel doubled its settlements, tripled its settlers and connected them with a network of bypass roads and industrial parks, ensuring their domination over the Palestinian territories. [/pullquote]As the minister of infrastructure in the Netanyahu government, Sharon concentrated Israel’s investment programs in the occupied Palestinian lands. The Rabin and Barak governments were no less active. There was an orgy of settlement building during the Barak government under the supervision of Yitzhak Levy, then leader the National Religious Party and minister for the settlements.4

When the time came to end this at the Camp David summit in July 2000, the negotiations stumbled and eventually failed because of Israel’s insistence of holding onto the settlements and 9% of the West Bank. The Palestinians were asked to sign a final agreement based on a promise of a quasi-state divided into four separate regions, surrounded by Israeli settlement blocs. Determination to retain the settlements has undermined attempts to end the occupation and compromised peace efforts. After the Camp David summit failed and the intifada broke out, the internationally commissioned Mitchell Report insisted that the settlements issue should go hand in hand with a peace accord. The commission recommended a freeze on Israeli settlements as a requirement for a cease-fire and a resumption of peace talks. Instead, Sharon’s cabinet approved an extra $400 million for the settlements. The new geography of the settlements is like carving a map of the West Bank out of Swiss cheese. The small black holes, disconnected and empty, are the Palestinian cantons, called autonomous regions, and the surrounding continuous rich yellow parts are the Jewish settlements.

There are two laws in Palestine: one for Jewish settlers and another for Palestinians. The settlers have the freedom to move around, build and expand; the Palestinians are cooped up in 200 encircled cantons. Israelis have access to the land and expropriate more of it; Palestinians have less and less. In recent years Israel has increased its closures of the Palestinian areas, hermetically imposed either locally or throughout the territories, to allow easy travel for the settlers. According to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, these closures have caused more damage to the Palestinian economy and its nation building than any other factor.5 They have made Palestinians’ lives impossible.

[pullquote]Friends of Israel in the West like the journalist Thomas Friedman, say that if the logic of the settlers wins, Israel will become an apartheid state. [/pullquote]The former Israeli Attorney General, Michael Ben-Yair, thinks the logic of the fundamentalist settlers has already won since Israel has already “established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories.”6

The settlers do not see it this way. General Eitam, the rising star of the religious right, sees a Greater Israel as “the state of God; the Jews are the soul of the world; the Jewish people have a mission to reveal the image of God on earth.” He sees himself as standing “in the same place that Moses and King David stood” where “a world without Jews is a world of robots, a dead world; and the State of Israel is the Noah’s Ark of the future of the world and its task is to uncover God’s image.”7

Low and middle-income families and new immigrants have been enticed to the settlements by offers of cheap housing and financial rewards, at times using U.S. aid money. But as the promise of better living turned into a colonial nightmare, the pragmatic settlers have tilted toward the right. More than 94% voted for Binyamin Netanyahu, and then Sharon in the last elections. Today, the fundamentalist settlers dominate the council that oversees the settlements, and they exercise a formidable influence over decision-making in the Israel government. Almost 1 out of 10 members of the Israeli Knesset are settlers. Three settlers have served as ministers in Sharon’s cabinet and two are now serving as deputy ministers. Although they are extra-territorial entities in the judgment of the international community, the settlements are the hotbed of pan-Israel nationalism. Unlike those Israelis who seek an internationally recognized Jewish state within sovereign borders, the new zealots insist that their homeland is the Land of Israel and not the State of Israel: they will therefore not allow the emergence of another state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

The power of the settlers goes beyond their electoral influence. Over the last quarter of a century, with the exception of the short-lived Rabin and Barak governments, the religious settlers’ influence increased rapidly as the hard political core of the Likud-led coalitions. They are a threat not only to Palestine and the normalization of Israel, but to the whole region. Think-tanks in the settlements show a war-driven style of thinking that taps into new U.S. concepts such as the war on terror and the “axis of evil,” as well as new missile systems and the worst, most sensationalist literature produced by the Pentagon. As they dream of U.S.-style wars, the settlers do not think about such things as coexistence with their next-door neighbors.

This is not surprising since they believe that Israel is the hope of the world and Palestinian moral savagery is organized to prevent this. Paradoxically, the latest wave of Palestinian suicide bombings has played into the settlers’ hands. Their erroneous claim that the Palestinians want not only removal of the settlements, but that of Israel, has relieved the pressure on the settlements—seen until then as an obstacle to peace—and radicalized ordinary Israelis. Israel’s settlement policy, continued regardless of signed agreements, has created a new geography of conflict. Millions of Palestinians and Israelis live in fear on account of illegal settlers who are plunging the area into communal and colonial war. If Israel continues the expansion of its settlement activity at the rate it did during the peace process, the settlers will soon reach a million. If that happens, separating Palestinians from Israel and its settlers will be impossible without ethnic cleansing. That would compromise the future of a Palestinian state and also the chances for maintaining a Jewish state over the long term, since the Jewish majority will diminish in mandatory Palestine (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza). In 10 years, the Palestinians will become the majority—one that will grow. And the millions of Jews and Arabs will become increasingly inseparable. Sharon and his settlers will continue to sustain a state of permanent conflict and war in Palestine and the Middle East. Unless the international community intervenes, the settlements’ logic will eventually lead to the same stand-off as on the eve of the 1948 war: either accept a bi-national state or attempt another ethnic cleansing. That would be a dramatic strategic error for Israel.



1 Ha’aretz , Tel Aviv, 12 April 2002.

2 New York Times , 27 April 2002.

3  See B’tselem, “Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank,” Tel Aviv, 13 May 2002 at:


4  The Fourth Geneva convention, which Israel and the US signed, stipulates that: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into    the territory it occupies.” The convention is legally binding on member states.

5  Conversation with Osama Kina’an, coordinator of the West Bank and Gaza desk at the IMF.

6 Ha’aretz , 3 March 2002.

7 Ha’aretz , 28 April 2002.



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