So who are these Israeli settlers?
By Neill Lochery
June 18, 2003
The stereotypical image of the 180,000-plus Israeli settlers who inhabit the West Bank and Gaza Strip is of machine-gun-totting, Arab-hating Jews. Politically they are characterized, by an increasingly hostile media, as extremist and the major Israeli obstacle to peace. Mention the words "Israeli settler" and two names are usually remembered: Baruk Goldstein (the perpetrator of the Hebron Massacre in 1994) and Yigal Amir (the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995). The fact that the latter was not a settler at all illustrates the problems of misrepresentation the settlers regularly face.
So who are these settlers? And how does the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, plan to deal with them?
There are three basic types of settler in the West Bank, and even this is a simplification.
The first group, which is the largest numerically, are deemed as economic settlers, and live primarily in the well-established major settlement blocks that are likely to remain under Israeli sovereignty after a deal is struck on the partition of the land between Israel and a Palestinian State. This group was enticed to live in the West Bank primarily by the generous tax breaks offered by successive Israeli governments, and by good road communications into Jerusalem. Israel claims many of these settlements around Jerusalem are not settlements at all, but rather housing projects that reflect the demographic growth of Jerusalem. The Palestinians charge they are political settlements, and reflect a concerted Israeli attempt to encircle Jerusalem with Jewish settlements thus ensuring Israeli control over the entire city.
The second group of settlers live in more outlying settlements that have assumed the characteristics and infrastructure of small towns. This group has more of a religious tinge to it, and strongly believes that Judea and Samaria (the Israeli term for the West Bank) should be part of the Jewish state. Many carry weapons, and come under attack from local Palestinians. The location of some of these settlements can be viewed as provocative as they sit near, or next to, Palestinian villages and towns.
Numerically the smallest, the third group is comprised of zealots who live on the periphery -- sometimes with the permission of the Israeli government, and other times illegally. These settlements tend to be small, and look very temporary with settlers living in tents, caravans or prefab huts. These settlers also tend to be the most militant. They firmly believe that they have a God-given right to settle in any part of the West Bank -- and their aim is to create as many outposts as possible in order to make it as difficult as possible for any Israeli government to hand over the land to the Palestinians.
The popular myth that Mr. Sharon is the darling or "Godfather" of the settlers is also simplistic and misleading. Mr. Sharon, in short, has used the settlers for his own political advancement ever since he supported Menachem Begin's decision to agree to the dismantling of the Israeli settlements -- a move that allowed Mr. Begin to sign the Camp David Accords with Egypt. Mr. Sharon tried to repair the damage this decision did to his right-wing credentials by later becoming the de facto leader of the settlement movement. Just as the settlers needed a champion, so Mr. Sharon needed a cause. To be sure, Mr. Sharon supports the settlers, but there has always been a suspicion that when it comes to the crunch his pragmatic side would overrule any ideological commitment to the settlers.
In the coming months we are therefore likely to see Mr. Sharon's government continue to dismantle illegal settlements. In order to help deal with the potentially explosive situation of a violent backlash from the radical settlers, the Israeli government must move to meet another demand of the Palestinian Authority by disarming all settlers. There is no room for armed militia groups in any democracy, whatever the provocation. The Israeli army must assume sole responsibility for the security of the settlers.
As negotiations proceed it is clear Israel will attempt to bring all the settlements from the first group back within the Green Line (Israel proper), and as many as the settlers in group two as well. Financial compensation will be offered to those who have to be uprooted -- the bill footed by the U.S. taxpayer. The bottom line is that Mr. Sharon knows where the line is drawn between acceptability and unacceptability to the majority of settlers. He will, in effect, sacrifice the minority in order to protect the majority. No other Israeli PM has been asked to gamble as much as Mr. Sharon on this issue, but he is the right man for this difficult task.
Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London.