Edith Zertal and Akiva Eldar end their exhaustive study of Israeli settlement policy with a poignant question: Is it possible, they wonder, that Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will become a "first step in Israel's journey of liberating itself from the enslavement to the territories that it occupied in 1967, and which have occupied [it] since then and have brought it to the verge of destruction"? Negotiations that have been set in motion by the Annapolis peace conference inNovember will likely provide a partial answer. Zertal, a leading Israeli historian, and Eldar, a chief political columnist and a former Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, have recently published Lords of the Land: The War for Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007. It is a detailed history of Israel's nearly forty-year occupation of Gaza and the West Bank with a painful contention at its core. The occupation, say Zertal and Eldar, has wounded Israel's very psyche, damaging both its sense of self and its moral standing in the world. "The prolonged military occupation and the Jewish settlements that are perpetuating it have toppled Israeli governments," write the authors, "and have brought Israel's democracy and its political culture to the brink of an abyss."
The Hebrew version of this book was a best-seller in Israel, and sparked a debate there on the devastating realities and consequences of Israeli settlement policy. It would be useful to replicate that debate here in the United States—in the belly, as it were, of the enabler. The book's unflinchingly provocative title is matched by a narrative that pulls no punches, and the cast of villains (there are precious few heroes) runs the gamut from Jewish militia terrorists and their supporters in the Rabbinate to Labor Party apologists for the settlers and feckless judges who looked the other way as settlers created illegal outposts within Palestinian territory.
There are two sides to the settlement coin. The first is the settlers themselves, who are for the most part religiously inspired, unswervingly motivated, and highly effective. Religious Zionism was very much in the backseat of the Zionist enterprise until 1967, but once Israel assumed control of Judea and Samaria (as the settlers refer to the West Bank), the national religious camp saw its moment to seize the ideological steering wheel of state.
Their method was to create facts on the ground—that is, to quickly build settlements—and then get the political system on board by a number of means. The first step was persuasion ("We are all Jews surrounded by a sea of enemies"), followed by integration (the settlers' tentacles reached into all branches of government), and then coercion (the use of intimidation, threats, and violence). Any dubious action could be "koshered" by a shared appeal to Jewish history and Zionist destiny. If all else failed, there was the threat of Arab terror, which the settlers had a key role in encouraging. For believers, there was a religious justification and meaning—a theology of settlement, if you like. The final ingredient was an approach to the Palestinians that was at best colonial and at worst murderous. The new Lords of the West Bank arrogantly dismissed the region's indigenous population, and when the Palestinians showed opposition, settler militias and terrorist groups were formed (yes, Jewish terrorist groups). In 2001, an Israeli group named the Committee for the Defense of the Roads claimed responsibility for the drive-by killing of a six-month-old Palestinian baby and her family. Similar groups carried out additional attacks, and between 1980 and 1984, before the First Intifada began, twenty-three Palestinian civilians were killed in violent attacks by settlers, mostly involving firearms (often army issue). American readers might be shocked to discover that a religiously sanctified cult of martyrdom and "redemptive death" among elements of the Israeli settler community even exists at all, and then horrified at the extent of its destructiveness.