Virtual reality on paper

A new documentary, ‘The Settlers,’ recently released on the 49th anniversary of the Six Day War shows the irreversible nature of Israel’s West Bank occupation.

Former defense minister Moshe Dayan, (center), and Gen. Rehavam Ze'evi, (2nd left), in conversation with the Palestinian keeper of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron during the Six Day War (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Former defense minister Moshe Dayan, (center), and Gen. Rehavam Ze'evi, (2nd left), in conversation with the Palestinian keeper of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron during the Six Day War
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
JUNE MARKS the 49th anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War and, coincidentally or not, sees the release in Israel of a documentary that recounts the history of the settlement movement that arose in the wake of the war. “The Settlers” by Israeli director Shimon Dotan, who teaches at New York University (NYU), is both horrifying and frustrating.
The Six Day War began when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a preventive strike against an Egyptian military concentration in the Sinai Peninsula that threatened to suffocate and destroy the Jewish state.
In that short war, Israel conquered the peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt; the West Bank from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; and the Golan Heights from Syria.
The official Israeli policy following the war was that all lands would be returned to their owners, after minor territorial adjustments, in return for peace.
In 1982, Sinai was returned to Egypt following the peace treaty between the two countries. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and the territory was taken over by Hamas in a military coup in 2007.
Against the backdrop of the bloody Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year, nowadays, no one – in Israel, the Middle East nor the wider world – demands Israel return the Golan Heights to the collapsed and practically non-existent state of Syria.
The major remaining obstacle for peace with the Palestinians is the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank (known by most Israelis as the biblical Judea and Samaria).
The central hurdle to ending the occupation and enabling the creation of an independent Palestinian state is the Jewish settlements.
“The Settlers” is an important film, certainly for the young and not so young people who were born into the reality of the occupation.
For my generation ‒ who were teenagers when the June ’67 war took place – the film is neither revealing nor a piece of history.
We are familiar with and a living testimony to the events that shaped Israel and indeed continue to shape its present and future.
The film tells how the late Hanan Porat, a young religious paratrooper who returned from the battle for Jerusalem, approached Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and asked that he and his friends be allowed to build a settlement north of Jerusalem. During the British Mandate the area known as “Etzion” housed four Jewish villages that were captured in 1948 by the Jordanian army. Some 127 of its inhabitants were killed in the battle and the atrocities that occurred in its aftermath, some were captured and taken prisoner and some survived, such as Hanan’s father.
At first, Eshkol ignored the request. But Porat was persistent. Then the prime minister hesitated and, eventually, in his saucy Yiddish told Porat and his friends: “kids, go ahead.” It was Eshkol’s solo decision without a cabinet deliberation or approval. Kfar Etzion was the first Jewish settlement to be built in the West Bank and the first step in the long Israeli march to colonize the area.
The next step was a few months later in Hebron.
A group of religious led by the charismatic Rabbi Moshe Levinger posed as Swiss tourists in April 1968 and took rooms in the local Park Hotel. They asked to celebrate Passover in the “City of the Patriarchs” and promised to leave the hotel and the city after the holiday. They never did. Their true intention from the outset was to gain a foothold in Hebron and they succeeded.
Like Porat, they were graduates of Bnei Akiva, the youth movement of the National Religious Party (whose disciples today are members of the Bayit Yehudi party led by Naftali Bennet). What helped them then was the rivalry between defense minister Moshe Dayan and labor minister Yigal Alon who fought for the hegemony of the ruling Labor Party. In order to smear and undermine Dayan, who was opposed to Jewish settlement in densely populated Palestinian areas, Alon supported the Hebron settlers.
But the real turning point was in the wake of the Yom Kippur War of October 1973.
Until then, the official policy of the Labor- led governments of Eshkol and his successor Golda Meir, had been to use the territories as “bargaining chips” to be returned in exchange for peace.
The only territorial exception was the “Alon Plan” named after the minister. It advocated building Jewish urban neighborhoods around Jerusalem and settlements in the Jordan Valley, which Israel wanted to keep as its eastern border with the Jordanian kingdom. The Alon Plan was a product of the typical Labor Party thinking, which believed that civilian settlements in areas of strategic importance should supplement and be complementary to military outposts.
Still, the Labor governments opposed settlement atop the Judea and Samaria hills and near Palestinian cities.
However, all that changed following the traumatic events of the 1973 war, which claimed the lives of nearly 2,700 young Israeli soldiers and scarred the nation’s soul.
In 1974, Porat, Levinger and their colleagues established the Bloc of Faithful, which was financed by Ernest Wodak, a right-wing textile industrialist who believed in the notion of “Greater Israel.” In 1979, when I profiled him for the now-defunct glossy Israeli magazine “Monitin,” he told me the first meetings of the Bloc of Faithful took place on the lawn of his villa in a luxurious neighborhood of Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.
Driven by messianic and religious zealotry, they swore to fight the settlement policy of the Labor government by all means – democratic and not so democratic. Their idea to break the government policy was to construct a Jewish colony near Eilon Moreh, in the Samaria hills, where, according to the Bible, God promised Abraham that he would give the land to his descendants.
Threatening a bloody civil war, they tried six times with thousands of supporters, mainly religious school kids, to climb and settle one of the hills, and six times they were evacuated by the police and IDF troops. As a young radio reporter, I covered the events and moved with them from one hill to another, witnessing their strong will and determination against a hesitant government.
As in Hebron, the Bloc of Faithful manipulated the inner politics of the Labor Party. This time, the rivalry was between prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and defense minister Shimon Peres. The latter supported the settlers to advance his short-sighted political agenda to take over the premiership from Rabin.
Journalist Akiva Eldar says in the film that he once asked Peres whether he regrets helping the settlers. Peres, according to Eldar, answered: “Had I known what a monster would grow, I wouldn’t have lent my hand to them.”
On the seventh attempt, in 1975, the government caved in and reached a “compromise.”
It was agreed that 30 male settlers would be relocated temporarily in a nearby IDF base. Right away, the settlers violated the agreement and moved in 30 families.
I remember meeting the only cabinet minister who opposed the “compromise,” Victor Shem-Tov, then health minister from the leftwing Mapam Party, which was allied with the Labor Party. Shem-Tov proudly praised the compromise and said: “We won. The government won.” I was only 25 years old and still don’t know how I had the chutzpah to challenge the minister by saying: “No.
You lost, the settlers won.” Indeed, history shows that they managed to achieve their ultimate goal to settle the Samaria hills.
Two years later, the Bloc of Faithful cemented its victory as the Likud Party, led by Menachem Begin, and won the election.
For the first time in the annals of the State of Israel, the right-wing Likud, in a coalition with the religious parties, ousted the Labor Party and the Left formed its own government. After the election premier Begin promised to build “many, many settlements.”
And, indeed, he did.
Today, the West Bank and greater Jerusalem, are inhabited by 570,000 Jews and 2.8 million Palestinians. Most of the Jewish settlers came for cheap housing and breathtaking views. The hard-core of the founding fathers and their sons and grandsons account for only some 80,000 settlers, but they are ideologically driven, religiously motivated and determined and dedicated to their cause.
Dotan’s film is horrifying because of the contradictions between the tranquil and wonderful landscape and the dreadful conditions of the Palestinians. But also because of the contrast between the soft-spoken words expressed by the settlers – some of them bordering on messianic hallucinations – and the true reality of Israeli colonialism, racism, discrimination and economic exploitation of Palestinians.
The film also touches briefly on how Jewish terrorists emerged in the last 30 years from the ranks of the Bloc of Faithful or as individuals whenever they decided that the governments – mainly right-wing ones – were not strong or harsh enough on the Palestinians and their national aspirations.
They assassinated Palestinian mayors, killed innocent civilians, planned to bomb Palestinian school buses and the mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. And one shouldn’t forget Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn-raised doctor who in 1994 murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs.
His funeral was attended by one Yigal Amir, who, a year later murdered Rabin. Goldstein and Amir are still adored by many settlers.
Hebrew University philosopher, Moshe Halbertal, says in the film that the new generation of Jewish terrorists “are envious” of the Palestinian martyrs and want to be like them – to sacrifice their lives with murder.
“The Settlers” is also frustrating because it places a mirror in front of Israelis like me.
Israelis who are secular, patriotic, who love this country and believe in human rights and human dignity – know that the battle about the spirit and soul of Israel as a free democratic, Westernized state is over. The settlers won.
The mirror shows us how short-sighted or cowardly politicians and a silent majority surrendered to a highly motivated core of religious zealots and militants who believe they act on God’s will.
The West Bank condition is irreversible as politician and writer, Meron Benvenisti, prophesized three decades ago. The twostate solution of an Israel and Palestine living in peace, side by side, is just a virtual reality on paper. 
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at and tweets at yossi_melman