Migron, a few miles East of Ramallah in the “West Bank” is officially an illegal outpost built on land owned by Palestinian Arabs from two nearby villages. Several Israeli administrations have promised to demolish it, but Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has tried to offer the settlers a compromise that would resettle them in a legal and permanent location nearby over a three year period. Israel’s Supreme Court, however, has decreed that Migron must be destroyed forthwith – in fact it should have happened by March 31st! The settlers claim that the land is abandoned, that no-one has offered sufficient proof of an existing owner and that therefore they are entitled to lay claim to this isolated hilltop themselves. So who is right?
There are and have been many illegal hilltop outposts since 1967. Accurate statistics are hard to come by and many are several years old, but there are probably more than 100 in existence today. Of all these, Migron is the “flagship” (“flag-caravan” might be a better title) of the settler movement, having grown from a mobile phone mast and five caravans to a present population of forty five families living mainly in temporary trailer-type housing and with only five permanent buildings on the site. In common with other emerging settlements, a high priority has been put on community facilities and Migron has a kindergarten, synagogue and other communal facilities.
A series of unfulfilled commitments by Israeli governments to carry out demolition threats, culminating in a decision by the Supreme Court in August 2011 that Migron must be demolished by the end of March (it hasn’t been!) have made the Migron issue into a “perfect storm” that highlights the tensions in Israeli society over settlements generally and the hilltop outposts in particular. It is not widely recognised that the settlement programme was initiated in order to give Israel post-1967 a strategic depth that the 1948 armistice lines had denied her. Since then, the whole concept of settling on unoccupied land in Judea and Samaria / the West Bank (according to your stance on the issue) has given rise to major societal tensions that just about everyone in the nation has an opinion on.
These issues and tensions crystalise down into four areas and understanding these will give a better understanding of why a total land area of less than 1% of the disputed West bank manages to dominate both national and international attitudes.
In 2010, Benjamin Netanyahu froze West Bank settlement construction for ten months in an attempt to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. They refused, demanding further freezing of construction which the Israelis declined to do. It’s important to realise that this is the first time settlements have become a game-breaker in the peace process. This is because (so far) everyone understood that settlements were and never have been a barrier to the signing of a peace treaty.
In 1982 Israel enforced the demolition of Jewish settlements that had sprung up in the Sinai peninsula as part of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. In 2005, Ariel Sharon oversaw the withdrawal of every settler from the Gaza Strip and from four disputed settlements in the West bank.
Israel has shown its willingness to evacuate and destroy settlements as part of ongoing peace settlements (although Gaza was a unilateral action). Should the Palestinians achieve their aim of a state on the West Bank in a process that Israel signs up to, many settlements will go; strongly opposed no doubt by the settlers and their supporters, but go they will.
It is the Palestinians who have made the settlements such a hot diplomatic issue, even though they have acknowledged themselves that settlements and outposts only occupy 1.1% of the disputed territory.
So the diplomatic tension is between the Palestinians claiming all construction in existing settlements must stop before negotiations can restart and Israel refusing, on the basis that they will remove what settlements they have to only under final status talks.
Settlements have become a symbol of the political extremes in Israeli politics. On the right you have the settler movement, determined to exercise their right to resettle their ancient homeland. On the left you have Peace Now, B’tselem and others doing their best through the courts, through demonstrations and campaigning and through on-site “support” of Palestinian villagers and farmers to eradicate all settlers and settlements from “occupied Palestinian land”.
The occupation of physical land areas and proving ownership (or none) of hilltops in the West Bank has become a boxing ring for Left vs Right, linked firmly to the opposing views of the political parties on the two wings in setting the agenda for any peace process negotiations with the Palestinians.
In the international batting to and fro of the issues around Israel and the West Bank, we often forget that there is a strong religious element to the settler movement. Many settlements, both legal and illegal ones, have been founded and populated by Orthodox Jews. I took a tour group of young British Christians to Israel a few years ago. We spent time camping in the desert, following Jesus’ footsteps and other spiritual and adventurous activities, but the best and most thorough Bible study of the tour was given to us by an Orthodox Jewish settler lady in Karnei Shomron in the West bank and was all about why Jews should settle the Land!
Israeli society has a number of tensions surrounding the secular-religious spectrum in the nation and one of these is the strong view held by most sects of Orthodoxy that the West Bank (Judea and Samaria in the Bible and to most Israelis) particularly represents the heart of the biblical land promised in the book of Genesis to Abraham and reinforced through the writings of the Prophets. This view colors the political stance of the religious political parties, placing them firmly on the right of the political spectrum.
Because of Israel’s particular expression of democracy through proportional representation, the religious parties are accustomed to being king-makers in the formation or collapse of coalitions constructed after each national election. Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, heads a relatively stable coalition, but he still depends on the allegiance of the religious parties to maintain his majority in the Knesset. This allegiance comes at a price, which includes taking note of the religious view of the settlements in both international negotiations and national policy decisions.
As one would expect, strong ideological views are interwoven in the political and diplomatic attitudes towards the settlements. Israel is a strongly nationalistic nation, unsurprising considering its history and that of its people. The ideological tension lies between those determined to maintain the strategic and political integrity of Israel, including all territory taken in the 1967 war, and those prepared to compromise in negotiations with the Palestinians and go down a “land for peace” route that gives up parts of the nation in return for a lasting peace.
Most Israelis accept the principle of a “two-state solution” with the Palestinians forming a new state on the West Bank and Gaza; some because of their left-wing ideology, some out of pragmatism and some out of a desperation for peace at any cost. In fact in some circles (not necessarily within Israel) it is almost heresy to suggest anything else, even though the price of “peace at any cost” would likely be much higher than anyone wants in terms of rockets and terror attacks from a Muslim state (look what happened when Israel gave up Gaza for “peace”).
The Israeli Government’s compromise solution for Migron’s inhabitants would have probably satisfied most people if they had not given a three year period of grace to the settlers (for which, read “the next administration can deal with this”)!
In the final analysis, the remnants of four land ownership systems are still extant in the West Bank; Ottoman Turk, British, Jordanian and now Israeli. Between them it has become well nigh impossible to tie down who owns what across the West Bank and so possession becomes “nine-tenths of the law” on barren hilltops that have not seen regular occupation by one family or one village for decades or even centuries. With the Supreme Court accused of left-wing bias and the settlers accused of opportunistic boat-rocking in the heart of a possible future Palestinian state’s territory, will we ever know who is in the right? As a certain Pontius Pilate once said, “What is truth?”
We haven’t given exhaustive references for this post, but the following are helpful sources (just be aware that everyone has a political standpoint on this, reflected in their writing!):