Israeli Settler Movement, an Analysis
On 8 August, L'Orient-Le Jour ran a short analysis on the Israeli settler movement and the effects of Sharon's Gaza evacuation on it. The article is not deep, but it does reveal the obvious: nothing will change and the world will still be left with a roiling, intractable crisis over Palestine.
For decades, the settler movement has constituted a powerful force in Israeli politics. It is unlikely that the Gaza pullout will weaken it. According to the terms of the evacuation promoted by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 8,500 Jewish settlers in 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and another 4 on the West Bank will be evicted.
For certain, the Gaza evacuation is a reversal for those supporting the colonization of the "Biblical land" of Israel and who have been receiving backing and encouragement from Sharon for years. If the evacuation goes as planned, the idea of "Greater Israel" is dead, says Gadi Taub of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, borrowing an expression invented by the Israeli right that encompasses all the lands under British mandate following World War I. It is a process which cannot be stopped once it's begun. It's as if France had decided to pull out of half of Algeria in 1962, claims Taub.
The settler movement began with Zionist immigration to Israel in the interval between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Their arrival contributed to the creation of the Jewish state, whose frontiers were recognized by the United Nations following World War II. Twenty years later, the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War breathed new life into the movement. The claim of "Biblical" rights over land beyond the Green Line, drawn by the UN, and the strategic aims of certain "hawks", including Sharon, to provide a rampart against Arab enemies have driven the settlement of colonists on the West Bank. The improvised encampments of 1970 became progressively organized and developed to form more than 140 Jewish settlements on the West Bank today with 240,000 residents.
At the outset, the prospect of cut-rate, reduced-tax housing was more attractive than ideology. But a hardcore group within the movement remained close to its nationalist and religious roots and dubbed itself the Believers Bloc. The Oslo Accords, the signature of an interim Isreali-Palestinian peace agreement and the transfer to the Palestinian Authority of towns and cities on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip had placed the settler movement in some doubt. However, the growth of settlements has not only increased but their population has doubled in the last 10 years. The outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 resulted in increased sympathy for the settlements in the eyes of the Israeli public. But Israeli public opinion cannot be really identified with the settlers. The colonists are on their own. It is not sympathy that they want. They want the backing of pubic opinion behind their cause and that is something they don't have, says Michael Feige, a sociologist at Ben-Gurnion University at Negev. The Sharon evacuation plan has widened the gulf. That said, the Gaza evacuation involves only a small number of settlers and the Israeli government does not have future plans to continue along these lines. In fact, the evacuation could strengthen the settler movement, says editor Akiva Eldar of Haaretz, a leftish newspaper. Eldar, like other observers, expects Sharon to veer even more to the right in the parliamentary elections schedule for 2006 or 2007.
Moreover, if the Gaza evacuation is marred and if traumatizing images accompany the pullout, it will be difficult for the Israeli government to envisage similar initiatives which would target the 96% of settlers who are unaffected by the current Sharon Plan. The Israeli Prime Minister has already indicated that he will not touch the sprawling settler blocs on the West Bank. He has also underscored that the Gaza evacuation, which Sharon argues is as a means of disengaging Israel from the Palestinian conflict, does not signify that peace negotiations will be restarted. Sharon insists that such talks are conditional upon the dismantling of armed groups by the Palestinian Authority.
In the short term, there is a slight decline in popularity of the settler movement, says Uri Ariel, an extreme right-wing MP who has moved to the Gaza Strip. I don''t mean to say that this isn't bad for us, but it's not a mortal blow. Settlement construction will continue.