Analysis: It's about the land, stupid (and a little more)

Little has changed in the settlement movement since the Seventies, when they began building outposts with no regard for law.

illegal outpost 88 (photo credit: )
illegal outpost 88
(photo credit: )
In January 1979, during the internal debates in Israel over the terms of the peace treaty with Egypt, which included abandoning Jewish settlements in the Sinai Peninula, members of Gush Emunim set up an unauthorized settlement near Nablus in the West Bank. The government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin persuaded the settlers to leave the site by promising them it would establish an authorized settlement in the same area. The military government then requisitioned a site of about 700 dunams, for a civilian settlement, much of it privately owned Palestinian land, on the grounds that the settlement was required for security purposes. The government used the same argument when some of the Palestinian owners petitioned the High Court of Justice against the expropriation. But the leaders of Gush Emunim were dissatisfied with the state's position in the petition. As an ideological movement, it insisted that the government tell it like it really was: the West Bank and Gaza Strip belonged to the Jewish people and to the Jewish people alone. They submitted their own reply to the petitioners in which they wrote that the landowners' arguments, which were based on the international law of belligerent occupation, were "totally irrelevant, since the dispute is internal between the Jewish people returning to its land and the Arab residents of the land of Israel and what is involved is neither 'conquered territory' nor 'occupied territory' but the very heart of the Land of Israel, our right to which is beyond doubt." Nothing has changed in the ideological outlook of the settlement movement since then. When they established their first unauthorized communities in the 1970s, their leaders had no regard for either national or international law. For most, if not all of them, the right to the land was based on their interpretation of God's promise. Nonetheless, for many years, sympathetic Likud governments were able to blunt the potential flashpoints between the settlers and the government, which was unwilling to annex the territories, by establishing a legal framework for the vast expansion of the settlement enterprise. It did so by proclaiming much of the land in the West Bank to be state-owned in accordance with a formal and transparent procedure. By doing so, the government expanded the legal state of affairs, which the settlers had demonstratively exceeded, to contain them again without their having to take a single step backwards. That state of affairs worked for almost a generation. It was only after the government decided to stop building new settlements that the underlying disagreements between the government and the settlers came to life again. The crisis between the government and the settlement movement over Amona is a perfect example of this. Although the settlers claim they purchased the land upon which the nine permanent houses were built, they failed for five years to provide any proof. In truth, the question of formal ownership did not really matter to them, just as it did not matter to them at Elon Moreh. The arguments that an earlier generation of settlers used in the 1979 petition apply just as well today. Nothing really matters except the fact that the land belongs to the Jewish people. That is why the visit of the National Union MKs to point out the illegal construction in the unrecognized Beduin villages in the Negev is basically a red herring. This is so not only because every child knows that two wrongs don't make a right, or because the issue of Beduin land is so complex and has been unresolved for more than five decades, largely because of the government's failure, or because the Beduins have lived in the Negev for generations or even because the authorities have, indeed, destroyed many Beduin homes over the years. The real reason is that according to the right-wing politicians, the illegal building in the Beduin sector is not what "justifies" the illegal Amona houses. The houses are justified because they are located in "the very heart of the Land of Israel, our right to which is beyond doubt." Nevertheless, it is not by coincidence that members of the National Union, a party which includes Moledet, the party that champions the "voluntary transfer" of the Israeli Arab population, has targeted the illegal housing in the Beduin sector. In both the Gush Katif and in Amona disputes, settlement leaders contrasted their alleged ill treatment with the allegedly preferential treatment enjoyed by the Israeli Arab population. For example, during the struggle over disengagement, settlement leaders charged more than once that the government would not dream of "transferring" an Israeli Arab village out of Israel as they did a Jewish settlement out of Gaza. In doing so, these leaders are seeking to exploit their own setbacks as a way of deligitimizing the Israeli Arab population, as though each time they suffer a political defeat, the desire of the Israeli Arabs to be voluntary transferred out of Israel increases. Who knows, the seeds they plant in this time of distress may grow some time in the future. After all, it's an ill wind that doesn't blow some good.