Ever since the the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began in 1967, successive Israeli governments have taken advantage of every opportunity at hand to increase the settlers’ population in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
The illegality of Israel’s settlements has been affirmed by the United Nations Security Council, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, settlement policy is a war crime.
Aside from being a grave breach of international law—and, as Amnesty International has put it: “inherently discriminatory”—the settlements are also a substantial obstacle to the establishment of a viable, sovereign Palestinian State in the OPT.
Israel’s colonization of the OPT makes many wonder whether a Palestinian State is even possible any more. But it is not just a question of land; it is also about the settlers themselves.
Roughly 400,000 Israeli settlers now live across the West Bank and if you add the number of residents of East Jerusalem settlements, the total number rises to some 600,000. Despite this enormous number, Israel’s representatives in the West continue to pay lip service to the end goal of a Palestinian State.
Israel’s allies, however, insist that the issue of settlements—and their 600,000 plus residents—is not a deal-breaker.
To square the circle, some suggest a distinction between settlers located to the ‘west’ and ‘east’ of Israel’s Separation Wall. It is an irony that the Wall, whose defenders insist was a temporary security measure rather than a land-grab, is now referred to almost casually as a border-in-waiting.
Some 82,000 settlers live outside the Separation Wall. Adding the population of Ariel, a major settlement-city in the middle of the northern West Bank with some 18,000 residents, brings the total to some 100,000 settlers.
According to a survey conducted by Blue White Future, an Israeli group that promotes a ‘two-state solution’ as a way of preserving Israel as a Jewish State, 40 percent of the settlers living east of the Wall would refuse voluntary evacuation “even after an agreement.”
Therefore, even if the Wall—built in defiance of international law, and incorporating 10 percent of the West Bank—became part of a negotiated border, Israel would still need to remove and relocate some 100,000 settlers, tens of thousands of them forcibly.
Palestinians, of course, reject the existence of the Separation Wall in its entirety, which has destroyed farmland, shattered communities, and whose higgledy-piggledy route was designed to include as many settlements as possible on the ‘Israeli’ side.
But is even this minimum figure of 100,000 settlers, let alone 600,000, plausible? Two parallel tracks suggest not.
While every Israeli government— including those headed by Labor—has expanded the settlements, the current coalition is particularly wedded to the settlement enterprise in both word and deed.
In March 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared: “We won’t divide Jerusalem, we won’t make concessions, we won’t withdraw from land.” Last October, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told an audience in Washington D.C.: “There is not and never will be a Palestinian State.”
But it is not just rhetoric. In the first half of 2015, the number of settlement homes built in the West Bank increased 54.8 percent compared with the equivalent six-month period the previous year. In November 2015, Israeli authorities moved “to green light some 2,200 new housing units.”
Under Netanyahu, new construction in settlements located east of the Wall has increased from 20 percent to 35 percent of the total. According to NGO Yesh Din, a quarter of outposts—‘private’ seizures of land by Jewish settlers with “the de facto support of the authorities”—have been approved or await approval.
The second problem is that a forced removal of settlers would have to be carried out by the army. But a rise in religiosity within the Israeli army—manifested in the growing presence of national-religious Jews in its ranks—calls into question the army’s ability and willingness to carry out such an evacuation.
In 2009, an unnamed serving Israeli general told the International Crisis Group, (ICG), that “an order to withdraw [from the West Bank] will… split the army and turn part of it against the state. I would rather give back Tel Aviv than Hebron.” He added: “We are…a Jewish State defending the land that is promised to us by the Bible, by God. It is Jewish land. This ideology is the backbone of the army.”
From 2000 to 2012, according to a second, more recent ICG report, “representation of the national religious in the officer training courses rose from 15 to 43 percent.” Recent plans to reduce the power of the Military Rabbinate, whose “Jewish identity branch” distributes materials and hosts lectures on bases, have met “strong resistance from rabbis within and outside the army.”
Removing 9,000 settlers from Gaza in 2005 cost $3 billion and required 10,000 Israeli soldiers and police officers. National-religious soldiers were intentionally kept away from the ‘frontline’. According to Israeli professor Yagil Levy, author of ‘The Divine Commander: The Theocratization of the Israeli Military,’ a similar evacuation of the West Bank is almost impossible to envisage.
In July 2015, Israel demolished “two illegal, empty, half-built structures” in Beit El settlement—a feat only achieved, in the words of Israeli journalist Asher Schechter, “after years of legal wrangling…and following days of political tumult and violent riots.” This “saga,” he said, showed why “Israel will likely never be able to evacuate the vast majority of settlements from the West Bank.”
An Israeli political leadership deeply committed to the expansion of West Bank settlements, including outposts and isolated colonies, combined with the growing influence of national-religious Jews within the military, makes the prospect of any large-scale removal of settlers a fantasy. When will global decision-makers wake up?