Palestine - A divine mission, to bring forth the messianic era

The settlements - Early settlers in the occupied lands saw themselves as pioneer farmers. Most still

Israel faced three options on the seventh day of the June 1967 Six-Day war: to annex the West Bank and the Gaza strip without granting citizenship rights to the inhabitants, thus turning itself into an apartheid state; to annex the territories and grant citizenship rights to the inhabitants, thus ceasing to be a Jewish state; or to withdraw from the territories, thus again defining itself as a democratic state of the Jewish people. Now, 37 years since that seventh day, Israel remains stuck with those same options - except that roughly 235,000 Israeli settlers are claiming a lion's share of the land and its resources.

A few months after the end of the war, the first Israeli settlement, Kfar Etzion, was set up in the West Bank. It was established in a place where there had been a Jewish settlement, destroyed by the Jordanian army in 1948. The old/new inhabitants of the place, most of them sons and daughters of the founders of the kibbutz, claimed the property of their parents.

Eight months later, on the eve of Passover, a group of families that said they wanted to celebrate the festival in Hebron - whose holiness in Jewish tradition is second only to that of Jerusalem - entered Hebron's Park Hotel. After the festival, they refused to leave, eventually becoming one of the most fanatical and violent groups of settlers in the whole of the occupied territories.

The nationalist and religious energy of the settlement movement, in these initial stages, melded easily into the aims of secular Zionism. Some Israelis saw the territories as a chance to widen their country's narrow waistline; others saw them as bargaining chips in future talks with Arab governments. Israel barely heard the voice of the few citizens who, at that time, called on their government to withdraw without delay. The country was in a state of euphoria, and would not let a handful of angry prophets spoil it.

Nevertheless, except for the 60 square kilometres that were annexed to Jerusalem following the war, all Israeli governments were careful not to annex formally the occupied territories. From 1967-77, Israel's Labour governments followed a policy that involved setting up roughly 30 settlements, most of them in the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, to form a 20km-wide barrier between the Palestinians in the West Bank and those in Jordan. Many of these were farming settlements, keeping up the Zionist ethos, which sees agriculture as a way of establishing demographic and security facts on the ground. The inhabitants were mainly non-religious young people, driven by the Zionist vision of the fighting pioneer farmer.

At the same time, other settlements were set up in the heart of the West Bank, in densely populated areas, often on the top of the chain of hills which links Hebron in the south with Nablus in the north. Like the settlement in Hebron, these tended to be based on the initiative of ardent local groups of settlers, impelled by a Messianic ethos. According to their doctrine, Israel's victory over the Arab armies, achieved in just six days, was a divine sign meaning that the redemption of the Jewish people after "2,000 years of exile" had entered an advanced stage. The "redemption" of the land of Israel, particularly the biblical areas, most of which are in the West Bank, was a necessary stage in the passage towards the Messianic era. In this debate, questions of realpolitik are marginal.

With the rise of the Likud party to power in 1977, the ideology of this group of settlers became the official line, determining Israeli policy. Menachem Begin, then Israel's prime minister, repeatedly said: "We shall never forbid any Jew to live wherever he wants in the land of Israel."

As the years passed, it became clear that the "Judaisation of the territories" had become Israel's flagship. In no other sphere did the state invest the money and resources that it invested in settlement. In 1977, settlement policy became the raison d'etre of every right-wing government and it still is today. The Labour Party, too, continued to invest huge sums in expanding and consolidating settlements. Today, roughly 230,000 settlers live in 125 settlements in the West Bank and 7,500 in the 21 established in Gaza. Many of the West Bank settlements resemble small towns: Ma'aleh Adumim, ten minutes' drive east of Jerusalem, has 35,000 inhabitants.

For the past 25 years, the man most responsible for settlement policy has been Ariel Sharon. In every ministerial position that he has held, Sharon has controlled the planning of settlements and the allocation of resources to them. The declared purpose of every settlement established since 1977 has been to drive a wedge between Palestinian villages, regions and towns, in order to ensure that the territories can never function as a coherent, independent political-economic unit.

Dozens of settlements have been set up every year, initially on the West Bank hilltops, and then on Gaza's plains. By declaring some 50 per cent of the West Bank to be "state land", huge territorial reserves have been confiscated for the future benefit of the settlements and their inhabitants. Meanwhile, Palestinians, who make up more than 90 per cent of the West Bank's population and more than 99 per cent of the population of Gaza, have been progressively restricted to defined areas. A similarly inequitable process was carried out in allocating water to the two communities.

Physical separation between Israelis and Palestinians was preceded by formal legal separation. Israeli settlers continue to be subject to Israeli civil law as in the state of Israel, but Palestinians are tried in military courts, which can impose much harsher sentences than their civil counterparts. This inequality in the eyes of the law has led to a situation in which enforcement of the law among the settlers has become extremely weak. As far back as 1984, a committee led by the deputy attorney general Yehudit Karp protested at the serious obstacles placed in the way of enforcing the law on Israelis in the occupied territories. Reports from human rights organisations suggest that things have got worse over the past 20 years.

In order to attract Israelis to the territories, dozens of settlements were built on the western fringe of the West Bank, relatively close to the pre-1967 border. These became a magnet for a broad range of Israelis, most of whom sought, and found in the settlements, the opportunity to realise their personal and economic dreams. Everything was promised to the tens of thousands of Israelis who streamed into the occupied territories in the 1980s and 1990s - spacious and cheap flats, generous mortgages, tax discounts, cheap education, a relatively secure environment - and all within a few kilometres of the centre of the country. Israel's welfare policy, which has gradually crumbled in recent decades, exempted settlers from all cuts and privatisations. Surveys show that three out of four people in the settlements moved there primarily to improve their standard of living.

Most of the Israeli population of the occupied territories still relies for its income on daily travel to Israel. To make this easy (and safe) for the settlers, an infrastructure of new roads has been created. Most of these roads, which transform the historic landscape, were built in the 1990s after the Oslo Agreement was signed, during a period of supposed confidence-building.

Thousands of housing units were created in the expanding settlements, as well as dozens of satellites. Although Israel undertook in 1996 not to establish new settlements, it has set up, or enabled the settlers to set up, roughly 100 outposts, which very often are nothing but the nuclei of new settlements.

All this happened at a time when Israel was negotiating the future of the very territories it was settling. There is no doubt that the sharp dissonance between the declared policy of Israel, which included a formal commitment to the Oslo Agreement, and the building and development of settlements, contributed to the erosion of Palestinian belief in Israel's good intentions. This in turn led to the eruption of the second intifada.

The settlements remind the Palestinians every day that Israel has no intention of recognising their historic and collective rights, not even in the region that formed less than one-quarter of Mandatory Palestine. As a Zionist Israeli, fearful for the future of this land, this seems to me to be the most dangerous message that we can send to our Palestinian neighbours. Moreover, the settlements do not merely enslave the Israeli economy, but also its sense of security, morality and national identity. Most Israelis alive today (including me) do not know another Israel. For us, the occupation, the settlements, the discrimination and the violence have become the reality. We simply do not recognise anything else. What is essential for all of us now is a long and hard process of recognising the limits of our power, a process that will in the end redefine Israel. Many European societies have undergone a similar process in recent decades. It has a name: decolonisation.

Dror Etkes is a member of the Israeli movement Peace Now

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