A two-day seminar took place this week under the auspices of the Minerva Humanities Center at Tel Aviv University, for an in-depth analysis and 40-year overview of the West Bank settlements.

This was a critical analysis of the settlement process. There was no settler representation, nor was it a political debate about the rights and wrongs of settlement. Although the words “colonization,” “occupation” and “fundamentalism” were not thrown around in every paper, there was an underlying assumption that the settlement process had a major impact on Israeli society and that it was part of a much longer process which did not begin in 1967 with the conquest of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).

How do we explain that what has often been described as no more than a political protest movement succeeded in bringing over 350,000 Israeli residents to the West Bank when, over an even longer period of time, all other planning and settlement policies have failed to bring about a decentralization of the country’s population, a movement of Israelis from the overcrowded metropolitan center of the country to the other peripheral regions, notably the Galilee and the Negev? What have been the underlying factors causing the relocation of so many people from their previous homes “inside” the Green Line to the new West Bank communities? Were they mostly motivated by the ideological and political imperative of settling throughout a Greater Israel, or was it the attraction of economic and quality-of-life factors, including middle class, suburban-style detached housing units at relatively cheap prices? The political and social impact of the settlements fascinate the research community.

Sociologists, political scientists, geographers and anthropologists have carried out numerous research projects to analyze these processes.

In attempting to differentiate between the ideological and economic factors behind the settlement process, it is often assumed that while the ideological settlers will not be prepared to voluntarily evacuate their homes under any condition, those who came for economic reasons such as cheaper land and housing will have their price and will be prepared to evacuate if they are offered the right compensation package.

A second topic to be addressed concerns the dual functioning of the settler movement as both a protest movement and part of government at one and the same time.

From the earliest days of Gush Emunim back in 1974, the settler leaders have portrayed themselves as constituting an ideological movement, constantly challenging successive Israeli governments who would sign a peace agreement necessitating territorial withdrawal from all, or parts, of the West Bank. But at the same time they have also become an intrinsic part of the governmental and municipal networks without whose assistance it is impossible to turn ideology into practice, to transform words and statements into bricks, mortar, roads, municipal and welfare services, and all the other banal components of everyday life which take place within the settlement communities.

In 2014 there is probably no other single sector of Israeli society which has such significant representation within the Knesset and the government. While there has never been a settler party to directly promote their interests, the current foreign minister, Knesset speaker, housing and construction minister and education minister all are residents of West Bank communities. Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, although not a West Bank resident himself, is one of the most pro-settlement ministers the country has ever known.

Just this week, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein was guest of honor at the corner-stone ceremony of a new neighborhood in the Kochav Yaakov settlement. Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who has been involved with the settlement project since its earliest days as one of the founders of Amanah, now controls the single most important ministry with regard to the release of land for development and authorization of construction of new neighborhoods and settlements throughout the country, including the West Bank. The issuing of zoning and building permits is controlled by the Interior Ministry, now headed by Gideon Sa’ar, one of the Likud’s most right-wing ideologues and someone who is being touted as a future prime minister.

Despite this blatant political power, there continue to be settlement leaders who have opted to remain outside the formal political frameworks in order to promote the ideological message, particularly at times when the political parties (even those of the Right) fail to live up to their expectations or threaten yet another fictional settlement freeze.

These leaders are often the rabbis – such as Moshe Levinger or Dov Lior – who, when challenged, argue that this is a matter of religion rather than politics and, as such, cannot be subject to the normal arguments of democracy and majority rule.

The settler movement has always portrayed itself as the modern-day continuation of the Zionist pioneers of the early twentieth century.

They argue that their settlement activities, intended to expand the political control of land for the Jewish collective, is no different to what happened in pre-state Palestine and that this did not change just because of the arbitrary and artificial way that borders were drawn up in 1949, separating Israel from the West Bank.

While there is an obvious difference with respect to the international and legal status of these respective territories, legitimizing what takes place in the name of the sovereign State of Israel within the Green Line, but delegitimizing everything which takes place on the other side of the line, the settlers do not see it in this way.

In practical terms, the regional planning mechanism, through which settlements were established along an exurban model promoting the concept of commuting communities “five minutes from Kfar Saba” is far from the pioneering image of the remote and isolated settlers of the Huleh swamps of the earliest agricultural kibbutzim and moshavim. But for the ideologues of the settler movement, the West Bank settlements are no different to the previous generation of settlements. For them, there is a direct link between the Zionist pioneers of the early twentieth century and the contemporary residents of the West Bank as each sought to achieve political and territorial objectives through the creation of irreversible facts on the ground.

The settlements will continue to be a fascinating topic for researchers if only because no other political movement has succeeded in challenging successive Israeli governments in a comparable fashion. While they have not succeeded in forcing Israeli governments to formally or legally annex the entire region to Israel, the settlement infrastructure, including not just communities, but also roads, industrial and commercial centers, schools and even a university, has effectively brought about a de facto annexation.

Forty years on since Gush Emunim was established in the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, the settler network has sunk roots and expanded beyond all expectations.

The combination of political and religious ideology, coupled with the pragmatics of settlement construction and municipal organization, have brought about an irreversible political reality of such magnitude that it is hard to see how this can change in any attempt to return to the negotiation table aimed at bringing about even a modified form of a two-state resolution of the conflict.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.

The views expressed are his alone.

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