Days after the 22nd annual remembrance day for Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the settlement enterprise that flourishes beyond the conventional blocs are warmly embraced by supporters of the two-state solution – politicians, activists, and experts – who publish declarations and proposals that would make Rabin turn in his grave. Many good people try, supposedly, to think “outside the box” and offer ample formulas: “no need to evacuate settlers,” “Israeli governed enclaves,” or a variety of confederations, federations, autonomous cantons, and proposals for a shared homeland. Behind these formulas lies an honest intention to overcome what their supporters view as obstacles to a sustainable treaty while reducing the national and personal price of withdrawal from any future agreement. However, these assertions and proposals, which strongly impact the public conscience, can contribute more than any of Netanyahu’s governments to the consolidation and strengthening of the isolated settlements that pose an incredible threat to the two-state solution.
Which facts and processes do these proposals overlook? The outline of the security and separation fence is often perceived to represent, more than any other option, the border between Israel and Palestine in a future agreement. It does not matter that parts of this de facto border, such as the “fingers” of Ariel and Kedumim, were rejected by the Palestinians in previous negotiations. This means that for Israelis, the fence draws a line between settlements that will remain under Israeli sovereignty and those that will have to be withdrawn, as then-Minister of Defense Ehud Barak said in December 2007: “When we build a fence it is clear that there are areas behind the fence, and it is clear that when an agreement [is signed]… these areas behind the fence will not be part of Israel.” In addition, the outline of the fence is considered to enable an agreement with land swaps even among the heads of the Yesha Council who admitted when the fence was erected: “we attempted to obstruct the plans to build a fence based on the Green Line, but, to be frank, we have not managed to obstruct it in a way that impedes the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
The citizens of Israel also came to this conclusion and voted with their feet opposite to how voted at the ballot box. The annual increase rate of Israelis in the West Bank took a plunge to 3.4 percent in 2016 from 10.3 percent in 1995. In addition, each year the rate of new immigrants who settle in West Bank decreases as a percentage of the national growth – from 63 percent in 1995, it is now, only twenty years later, 22 percent.
Analyzing these demographic figures in the territories reveals that as of 2016 most of Israelis east of the Green Line live in 60 settlements and 12 neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that are located west to the fence (516,000 people or 84 percent of Israelis who live outside the pre-1967 border). Despite disproportionate investments made by Netanyahu’s governments over the years in 75 isolated settlements, they accommodate only 92,000 people. The growth distribution between the two groups has remained the same for years. This means that for fifty years Israelis were reluctant to immigrate en masse to settlements that are far from the Green Line. This figure can be attributed to the distance from main areas of employment, commerce, and entertainment, and to the various declarations by politicians and public figures that these settlements will not permanently remain under Israeli sovereignty.
Second, the closer a settlement is to the Green Line, the larger it is and the higher its growth. 13 out of the 15 Israeli local councils in the West Bank with more than 5,000 residents are located on or adjacent to the Green Line. The two ultra-Orthodox cities, Modi’in Elit and Beitar Elit, are home to a third of Israelis who live in the West Bank, and the growth rates in these cities increased by 100 percent and 77 percent respectively. That is also the case of Oranit (49.6 percent growth rate), Shaked (61.1 percent), Alfei Menashe (33.5 percent), Har Gilo (278 percent), Sal’it (90 percent), Etz Efraim (197 percent), Tzofim (93 percent), Givaat Zeev (49 percet) – all west to the constructed fence. Distant settlements grow at slower rates even if they are still west of the unbuilt sections of the fence, such as Ariel (17 percent) and Maale Adumim (18.6 percent), or even farther away, such as Halamish (27 percent). More than a third (27) of the isolated settlements, east of the unbuilt fence, suffered from negative growth rates in 2016 (the prominent examples are Beth El, Psagot, Ofra, Bracha and Itamar).
The recent declarations and proposals on settlement blocs might remove the fear of the painful experience of evacuation. They also might unduly undermine the claim that the isolated settlements are an obstacle to an agreement. Since the latest national socio-economic statistical report, published by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), found that 81 percent of settlers live in local councils that are rated lower than in the same report published five years ago, these declarations can increase the demand to move to these settlements as they started receiving significant tax reductions and benefits. Ultimately, these declarations eradicate the demand that Israel withdraw sovereignty from settlements that are slightly off the Green Line, such as Efrat.
Who do these assertion makers try to appease? Primarily, the majority of the isolated settlements are located on the “back of the mount” and are the product of Gush Emunim’s Amana Movement, which completely negates the two-state solution. They moved there despite Rabin’s government policy: “The government adopted a clear security policy, where to settle and where not. In the Golan Heights, in the Jordan Valley, around Jerusalem and Gush Etzion and the Rafah Crossing – yes. In Samaria – no! In the epicenter of the West Bank, densely populated by the Arabs, we shall not push Jewish settlers. Such dramatic settlement is demonstrative and antagonizes the Arabs and the U.S., and it is unnecessary and unjustified from the security aspect,” Rabin wrote in 1979. Rabin harshly criticized the movement: “In Gush Emunim I saw an acute phenomenon – a cancer in the body of Israeli democracy. Against their fundamental disposition, which contradicts Israel’s democratic basis, it was imperative to battle ideologically and expose the true meaning behind the movement and its actions.”
Indeed, such isolated settlements were explicitly designed to infringe on Palestinian contiguity as formulated in the Dorbles Plan under the Head of the Settlement Unit (1978): “The distribution of the settlements must be not only surrounding villages but also between them [because]… that is the best and most efficient option to remove any doubt about our intention to hold Judea and Samaria in perpetuity.” This policy succeeded. Less than 10,000 Israelis living in 15 isolated settlements south of Gush Etzion (not including Kiryat Arba) caused the dissection of Hebron County, home to 750,000 Palestinians, into dozens of Area A and Area B “islands.” The villages’ access roads run through Area C, leading to an influx in Israeli military presence along these roads, thus disturbing the Palestinians’ lifestyle and any possible development plan.
Every strategy employed to achieve this goal was “kosher.” Despite the promise made by Israel’s governments that the settlements would be built solely on “state land,” a report released by the Regavim movement in May 2015 revealed that at least 2,000 houses in the settlements were built on private Palestinian lands. Add to this figure the dozens of illegal settlements that continued to prosper and the intensified land grab, regardless of the governmental decision to adopt Talia Sasson’s report and evacuate them, and regardless of the fact that this was also one of the main recommendations made in Edmund Levy’s report. Early on, Rabin pointedly criticized the land grab, saying, “There have been a handful of cases in Jewish history where a wild gang, such as this, takes upon itself the mandate of heaven… all under the loathsome disguise of loving the Land of Israel and rudely taking to the streets to terrorize and project fear.” Now, the official response has been the anti-democratic Regulation Law, which expropriate these stolen lands from their rightful owners.
All of the aforementioned settlements are urban communities with no agriculture or industry. In most of them, the primary employer is the local council. The smaller the settlement, the more its residents depend on the government for financial support. More than 80 percent of the isolated settlements have less than a thousand people each. This infers one of two possibilities: fantasizing that the Palestinian state will fund prospective Jewish residents or that the State of Israel will fund the citizens of another country.
If these basic facts were recognized, would anyone fathom demanding the preservation of isolated settlements under Palestinian sovereignty, or worse, as Israeli enclaves in a Palestinian state? Would we disregard a hundred years of conflict and all the previous partition proposals given by international mediators and plant ourselves as the seeds that will lead to the next violent episode? Wait until the traction scares off the Israelis who remained in enclaved settlements under Palestinian rule, after we already paid off the price of their lands by endangering the Kibbutzim around the Gaza Strip, the Valley of Springs, and elsewhere? Believe that the Palestinians will agree to these offers when in their minds they already forfeited 78 percent of the Palestinian homeland and now we want to grab the little they have left? Even Rabin, in his speeches to confirm the acceptance of the Oslo Interim agreement in the Knesset, a month before he was assassinated, where he exaggerated the country’s future borders, did not mention a single isolated settlement. Nevertheless, any Israeli who aspires to live in the future Palestinian state may do so by standard legal procedures.
The evacuation and resettlement of Israelis who live in the isolated settlements is a great challenge, but much less than what the public assumes, and even less than the challenge the damage of preserving them will cause. One should not expect Netanyahu’s government to deal with these issues – its capacity was exhibited in the evacuation of the illegal settlement Amona, costing the Israeli taxpayer 137.5 million Shekels, or bestowing millions to the outlaws of the Migron stronghold. The proponents of the two-state solution should cease looking for “creative” ideas and act differently. Often the arduous road is also the best one in the long run.
For example, it is possible to begin with changing the budgetary priorities, as Rabin did in his government in 1992. He discerned between “security settlements” and “political settlements,” the latter comprising all the isolated communities. Rabin’s government worked to curb the settlements’ growth, eliminated construction contracts and refused to populate houses that were already built (under resolution 360 from November 1992). Another option is re-using an “evacuation-compensation” bill that will significantly decrease the number of forced evacuees, mostly secular but also national-religious. Furthermore, facilitating the return into the Green Line of residents of the Jordan Valley who complied with Yigal Allon’s and Rabin’s call to build security settlements, and have long exceeded the age of 70. Completing the security fence in an outline that underscores security considerations and declaring that Israel has no territorial claims to its east is also significant. Finally, there is the imperative of entering negotiations in a moderate and conditioned political process, with the engagement of regional and international actors in order to resolve the conflict under the familiar parameters, including withdrawal from the isolated settlements, accompanied by proper national preparations. These actions demand public courage, determination, and an honest belief that this is the only way. Perhaps then, and only then, Rabin will rest in peace.
This article was translated from its original Hebrew presentation by Noa Shusterman