The great drift

What turned 'settler' into a dirty word?

tents mishmar hanegev (photo credit: JNF)
tents mishmar hanegev
(photo credit: JNF)
It was 3 a.m., and outside it was pitch black and deadly quiet. Quivering in anticipation, 30 young men and women sat and waited. They began their hurried work when the trucks arrived, loading building supplies, ready-made walls, mattresses and a tank of water onto the three pick-ups. Shivering from the late night chill, they mounted the trucks and traveled quietly under the cover of darkness for more than an hour, careful not to arouse the neighboring Arab villages. Finally, the lead driver stopped his transport in the middle of the wilderness, his only explanation: "Here." The early light of dawn began to spread across the sky as they jumped off the trucks and surveyed the barren land that was to become their new home. One group assembled the shacks they would live in from the wooden planks and half-built structures they brought with them, while another group started a fire and prepared food, and yet another constructed the fence. The sun rose and they later remembered it as the most beautiful sunrise they had ever seen. At the same time, 10 other settlements were being established by 10 other groups all over the southern part of the country. Later that morning, the newspapers reported on their secret operation in large letters on the front page: "They reclaimed the Negev." It was the night after Yom Kippur ended, recalls Chana Ben-Tzur, who at 18 was one of the 30-odd pioneers who established Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev, one of these "11 points" established on October 6, 1946. The population of the Negev at the time was about 50,000, mostly Beduin, and the Morrison-Grady plan of that year to resolve the issue of Palestine allocated the northern Negev to the Arabs, while the southern Negev would remain part of the British Mandate. The heads of the Yishuv decided they must do something to change the political reality on the ground. After different plots of land throughout the Negev were painstakingly purchased privately by Jews and by the Jewish National Fund, an operation was planned by the Jewish Agency to settle those patches, thereby raising the chances the Negev would be included within the borders of the future Jewish state. The parcels purchased were chosen based on their proximity to each other, allowing each settlement to provide logistical assistance and security to the others. The young pioneers were selected about 10 days before the operation was to commence and represented a potpourri of new immigrants who had run from a crumbling Europe and children of new immigrants, all eager to make their mark on their homeland. The operation was planned for that night to confuse the British, who would never have expected the Jews to attempt such a feat only hours after the end of Yom Kippur. The British were also expected to sleep late that morning, as it was a Sunday, their day off. The leaders of the Yishuv correctly guessed that the high number of settlements would make it difficult for the British to take them down and would sway public opinion toward leaving the Negev in Jewish hands. Hours after the makeshift huts had been erected and covered with roofs, British officers appeared, recalls Yossi Tzur, one of the first residents of Kibbutz Shoval, a few kilometers away from Mishmar Hanegev. They looked around, he says, seemingly mesmerized by the sudden presence of the settlements, and continued on their way. None of the settlements was ever removed by the British, and today all of them but one are still standing - during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, Kfar Darom was evacuated by order of the Israeli government. (The original Kfar Darom was evacuated after a long siege during the War of Independence, but reestablished nearby in 1970.) The settlement operation in 1946 was and still is considered one of the most important in the years leading up to the establishment of the state. The youths who risked their lives in the middle of the night are considered Zionist pioneers and heroes. But today, 60 years later, those who say they are driven by the very same ideology are fighting the state that was founded on their convictions. THE MAJORITY of Israelis, however, would disagree. "There's no doubt that the society and government of Israel relate to us very differently than they relate to the pioneers of 1946," admits Emily Amrusi, spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The proof? The common use of the word "occupation," she says. "If you say occupation, you're saying it's not yours." And though she says the modern settlement movement is simply a continuation of the pre-state pioneering operations, others claim the public doesn't support it because it isn't necessary anymore. "We have a Jewish state now," explains Prof. Menahem Hofnung, an expert in political science, law and national security at Hebrew University. "Then, there wasn't a state and settlement was the consensus of the Zionist movement. But nowadays, especially in the last 20 years, most of the world and a significant part of the Arab world is willing to recognize Israel within its 1967 borders." Resettlement and annexing more land means a binational state, he says, which is seen by many Israelis as a continuation of the conflict and the prevention of any agreement with the Palestinians. The settlement movement, therefore, is looked upon as adding fuel to the fire and perpetuating the conflict. "The aim of Zionism was to ensure the creation of a viable Jewish state. Once this was achieved, we can stop resettling and look for reconciliation with the Arabs," he says, while confessing his doubts over the possibility of peace with the Palestinians. Israel also boasts one of the world's strongest armies and, says Dr. Zvi Shilony, a historical geographer at the Ben-Gurion Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, a majority of Israelis believe we are strong enough to defend ourselves without the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The settlers maintain that without the West Bank as a buffer zone, it would be much more difficult for the country to defend itself against the Palestinians, says Amrusi. This, many settlers argue, is clearly illustrated by the constant barrage of Kassams on Sderot and surrounding areas even after the disengagement. But according to Hofnung, the national security claim is not taken seriously anymore, because even if other means of defending the state were proposed, the settler movement would continue. As it proclaimed 28 years ago during the famous Eilon Moreh case, "it is our promised land." Shilony also notes that the settlements depend on the security provided by the IDF, not vice versa. "The army has to defend [settlers] in their homes, in their workplaces and on the roads," he says, "and by this they only divert many soldiers and money and means from the direct security the IDF could provide the state." Shilony comments further that as "bad" as the Palestinians might be perceived, the Israeli public deems it inhumane to take more of the area the Palestinians were left with at the end of the War of Independence. "Jews, as human beings, have always been aware of the Palestinian plight and their welfare, interests and autonomy," says Shilony. "They, too, need a place to live and a state alongside Israel." But the most fundamental difference between the modern settlement movement and the establishment of the 11 points in 1946, according to Shilony, is that the latter was legal, while the former is not. ONE IDEA all can agree on, however, is that the times have changed since 1946, and so have the people of Israel and their values, leading popular opinion to regard the modern settlement movement with disdain. "Israel is not a pioneering society anymore," says Prof. Shmuel Sandler of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. "In general, all over the world, there are less aspirations and impulses to control territories where other people live. Settling and building an empire was once a very positive concept, but the world has changed its views and Israel has changed its views, and today colonialism is a dirty word." But Sandler offers a deeper answer to the change in values, having more to do with the Israel's becoming a more affluent society since the 1940s and less to do with the settlement ideology. "Israel has become much more hedonistic," he says. "To be a pioneer you have to sacrifice, living in the settlements is a sacrifice, and people don't see this as a worthy goal anymore. They're tired. It's much better to live in Tel Aviv than in a small settlement surrounded by Arab villages." Sixty years ago, the main agenda was the welfare of the group - the individual was of secondary importance, elaborates media crisis consultant Amir Dan, CEO of the media and strategy office at McCann Press of McCann-Ericsson. "Today, people care more about themselves and their families and less about the collective good." The main problem according to Amrusi is that today's generation lacks the education necessary to grasp the importance of the Land of Israel and thus of the larger significance of the settlement movement. Less Jewish history and Bible studies in schools have led to more disconnection from their past, she says, and as a result, many have no idea who the land really belongs to. Without a strong Jewish identity and connection to Jewish roots, Israelis miss the bigger picture of the State of Israel and its role in the destiny of the Jewish people. "Our history didn't start in 1948, it started thousands of years ago," Amrusi says. "We aren't talking about occupying a new place - we're talking about going back to our homeland, to where our culture and religion began with Abraham and King David." The settlement movement, she contends, is just another link in the very long chain of the history of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. But the public doesn't empathize with the settler movement because it doesn't identify with the settlers, viewing them as dangerous extremists, explains Dan. Sixty years ago, he says, settlers were looked at as people who risked their lives for the country, whereas modern-day settlers are viewed as risking the country for themselves and their own interests. Sixty years ago, the settlers were the soldiers of the state that was to come, but today they are not seen as soldiers but rather as the ones risking the lives of our soldiers. Why? In 1946, he explains, everything was simpler because there was one clear-cut target - establishing a state. Today, there are many groups and many goals, and the settler movement differentiates itself even further from other groups because "it looks different, acts different and sees itself as different ideologically." While Dan admits that the media play a large role in distinguishing and disconnecting the settlers from the rest of society, he says the settlers also separate themselves by thinking their ideology is more important than explaining their convictions to the consensus. Indeed, this realization led Gush Katif settlers on a campaign in 2005 going door-to-door to homes across the country in an attempt to show people that settlers are normal people and just like them. Wherever the fault lies, 60 years from now, Dan says, the details of today will have faded away, and we will only remember the stereotypes. "Settlers will conjure up extremists who hated Arabs and were religious and were different from me, they won't be learned about as heroes who saved the land," he predicts. There are ways for the settlers to change this, of course, as they tried to do in their campaign before the disengagement. But, says Dan, "if I had to guess, Ariel Sharon will be the one remembered as a hero for taking the settlers out of Gush Katif." IN THE DAYS following the disengagement from Gaza, Chana Ben-Tzur recalls, former residents of Kfar Darom came to Mishmar Hanegev seeking temporary shelter. "I remember them showing up at the kibbutz," she recounts. "Those poor, poor people. We gave them food and clothing, and they were just so miserable. It's an image I'll remember forever." Now 80, Ben-Tzur and her husband have lived in Mishmar Hanegev since its birth in 1946, and they love the place they founded. But when the time came to decide the fate of their sister kibbutz of Kfar Darom, they were all for its evacuation. "I think it's more important to leave our homes than to die in our homes," she says, although the process was "very difficult and very sad to watch." Though she spent her youth settling the barren land, she says she doesn't understand the ideology of living in a place like Gush Katif or the West Bank, surrounded by Arabs. "It's not ours, it belongs to the Arabs who live there," she says. "Settlers can be pioneers where it's allowed - in the Negev and the Galilee. But I want to live in peace." Only a few kilometers away in his home in Kibbutz Shoval, Yossi Tzur's face clouds over in anger at the mere mention of the disengagement. "It was a crime, a shame and a mistake," says Tzur, whose family escaped Germany hours before war was declared in 1939 to come to Palestine. Growing up in the kibbutz movement, he says he always wanted to start a kibbutz and build it from scratch, and as a carpenter, he did just that at Shoval, which made it even more difficult for him to watch the evacuation of Kfar Darom. "Jews destroyed flourishing Jewish settlements that had been built from nothing," he laments. "They say they did it to bring peace, but it has only weakened and endangered our position as never before." When asked whether he believes in the idea of land for peace, the answer is definitive: "Never!" Rather than give up the West Bank, Tzur says, "every time a Kassam is fired from Gaza, we should set up a new settlement in Judea and Samaria." Sitting at his kitchen table surrounded by photos of his children and grandchildren, and by the lush greenery of the kibbutz he helped to found 60 years ago, he argues that there is no difference between what he did then and what a settler does today. "The people of the kibbutz movement were the pioneers of Israel. I doubt there would even be a State of Israel without them," he says. "But the settlers in Gaza, Judea and Samaria - they are the real pioneers of today." Tzur warns against a repeat of the disengagement. "We have no right to give up any land. We have to keep fighting," he beseeches. "We cannot give in." AND FROM Ma'aleh Levona, the Samaria settlement on a hilltop near Ariel founded 38 years after the establishment of the 11 points, Yossi Maimon echoes Tzur's convictions: "We have to be strong." "Whoever needs to remember why a Jew has to wear a uniform and fight for his land can go to Yad Vashem and find the reason," he says. "We have always been persecuted, and the solution to that is the Land of Israel, and the only way to survive here, in the Middle East, surrounded by Arab countries, is to be strong. This is my land, and I am obliged, as a part of the Jewish nation, to live on it." Established on Yom Ha'atzmaut in 1984, Ma'aleh Levona is home to more than 500 people, but Maimon, a founder of the community, remembers when there were only four families. While living in nearby Shilo and managing a horseback riding business, Maimon would often run horseback tours throughout the area. On one particularly memorable trip he came across the hill of Ma'aleh Levona, climbed it and fell in love with the expansive view. "I remember I said to myself at that moment that I would give anything to build my home here," he recalls. A few weeks later, Maimon and his wife and other young Shilo couples were approached by Amana, the settlement arm of Gush Emunim, and asked to initiate the settling of Ma'aleh Levona. The next day, Maimon quit his job and drove all over the country trying to find other families interested in settling the area. A year later, 30 families had signed up, but only four were slotted to settle the land immediately. It was a grey May day when the Nahal unit of the IDF turned the strategic hill over to civilian control, and the Maimons loaded up their small car, drove to the top of the hill and moved in to the abandoned army barracks that was to be their home for the next five years. In the presence of the media and with the blessing of then-defense minister Moshe Arens, a ceremony was conducted to mark the establishment of the new settlement, and after the crowd dispersed, Maimon and three other families remained to begin to build their lives from scratch. One small generator supplied them with electricity until they were hooked up to electric lines eight years later; a truck would bring them water three times a week until they were connected to the water pipes six years later; and one phone served the entire community - which within months grew to 30 families - until they all had phones six years later. "When I look at myself today and remember what I did then, I think I must have been crazy," admits Maimon, "because it was very, very difficult." But when he stands outside his home looking at the beautiful view - which, residents claim, features Tel Aviv and even Mount Hermon on a very clear day - it's easy for him to remember why he chose to do what he did. "I figured that this would be my tiny contribution to the Land of Israel, to bring families to settle this hill," he says. "The vision of the Zionist movement is to return to the Land of Israel, and with all respect to Tel Aviv, it's not the most important part of the land, but rather the land of the Bible is - Judea and Samaria, Hebron, Shechem [Nablus], Bethlehem, Jericho." "When you open the Bible, you don't find Tel Aviv and Haifa," echoes Jake Steinmitz, whose family moved to Ma'aleh Levona a few months after Maimon. "You can drive on the road here and say this is where Joseph walked, or this is the valley where the Maccabees fought, and that's why we have to be here." The government has not reached a formal decision regarding the permanence of the settlement, though Peace Now has indicated that it is slotted for removal. Though many in the community refuse to believe they will be uprooted like Gush Katif was in 2005, Debbie Steinmitz says that lately the question she hears most is, "When are you moving?" "We don't see a 'Green Line,'" contends her husband. "When you read about the pioneers of the 1930s and '40s coming to Palestine and establishing settlements, what we did was really the same thing, just a more modern version."