Lords of the Land: The Settlers and the State of Israel, 1967-2004
By Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar
Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishing House.
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Many studies exist detailing one aspect or another of the story of Israel’s settlement of its occupied territories. None, however, in Hebrew or in any other language, has tried to tell the full story. “Lords of the Land,” by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, is the first attempt to give a more-or-less full account. This in itself is a fact worth pondering, because such settlement was by far the most important political story in Israel in the past four decades. Why then, only now?
Part of the answer lies in the nature of the story itself: It all took place in a shady, gray area of politics, law, economy and ideology, the contours of which were never clear. Settlement was always a semi-legal, semi-clandestine operation.
Consider, for example, one incident at the movement’s beginning, told in detail in the first section of the book: In the spring of 1968, less than a year after Israel acquired new territories in the lightning victory of the Six-Day War, a group of young men, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, approached the military administration of the occupied territory with a modest request. They asked to celebrate the Passover Seder in Hebron, the newly occupied city of our biblical forefathers and foremothers.
Armed with a military permit signed by commander of the Eastern front General Uzi Narkis, they arrived in the ancient town on the night of April 12, and rented rooms in the Park Hotel. It later turned out that they neglected to keep their promise to leave the city when the holiday was over. The government had already rejected plans, submitted by Minister Igal Alon, hero of the War of Independence, to create a Jewish neighborhood in Hebron. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was not happy with the whole Seder affair, but he failed to grasp the full meaning of this little bridgehead, and he did not put his foot down. Alon, on the other hand, sympathized and paid the settlers a ministerial visit. Other ministers followed. Through teary eyes, and a cloud of melodramatic rhetoric about the return of Jews to the sites of the Bible, combined with nostalgia for the pioneering beginnings of secular labor Zionism, political vision was blurred.
Eshkol wavered, but did not stop his subordinates. His minister of defense, Moshe Dayan, another war hero, came up with a compromise: to move the group temporarily to the military administration’s building, until a permanent solution could be found. The settlers took this to be a kind of official recognition. They were already busy creating an improvised school for their children (inside the Park Hotel), followed by a yeshiva.
When the issue was brought up in Cabinet again, rather than deciding on creating a Jewish settlement, the government first decided not to evacuate those already there. By and by, a settlement sprang up. A fact on the ground. The army mobilized to protect it. And since it was there already, by September of the same year, a government that never intended to settle any of the territories approved construction of a Jewish neighborhood in the city. This would become a pattern: Facts on the ground are created, army and bureaucracy follow, and finally the government grants retroactive approval.
Surprisingly, the pattern did not change all that much under the Likud governments, which, since 1977, encouraged settlements positively and increased their number greatly. There are a few reasons that the operation remained in the shadows: The government itself preferred to leave much of it semi-covert. Sure, there were some pompous cornerstone ceremonies, but the bulk of activity had to keep a low profile. According to international law, an occupying power is barred from settling its citizens on occupied territories, and even Israel’s greatest allies — the United States, primarily — frowned on it. Unwilling to go so far as to annex the territories, even the most hawkish governments helped enlarge the rift between de facto and de jure.
Secondly, the ambitions of the settlers always greatly exceeded even those of the most sympathetic governments. So in the increasingly wild West Bank, ambiguity kept surrounding everything, and nobody called anything by its proper name. “Lords of the Land” describes in great detail how land grabs were disguised as military zone restrictions; how new settlements were disguised at first as “neighborhoods” of existing ones; how legal terms were twisted and devoid of meaning, creating double standards and lax enforcement; how government funds were diverted in clandestine, roundabout ways; how bureaucratic hierarchies grew strange humps to bypass regular procedures, and so forth.
From the early days of Hebron to the creation of the city of Ariel, from little government concessions made to small groups up to the crisscrossing of the whole territory with “security roads” for Jews only — what was really going on largely eluded the public eye. The story is a truly amazing one: A small group of zealots, a mere 2% of Israel’s population, managed to exploit the nation’s inability to decide the fate of the territories to an extraordinary extent. With various degrees of sympathy and antipathy from different governments, they were able to drag a whole country into a state it never really debated, let alone decided on. This small group, driven by an unflinching confidence that they represent nothing short of God’s true will, and with some allies in parliament and government, spearheaded, nurtured, protected and maintained the effort that culminated in almost a quarter of a million Jews now living in the territories. They nearly managed to turn the occupation — with three-and-a-half-million Arab inhabitants — into permanent annexation.
But they fell short of that point, and the timeframe of “Lords of the Land” runs right up to the point at which this seems clear: Ariel Sharon’s introduction of the disengagement plan last year. Since the book came out, Israel’s government has approved the plan, along with a wall, or fence, closer than ever to the Green Line (Israel’s 1967 international border). The wall, as everyone in Israel understands, is bound to become a future border. It now seems for the first time that the story of settlement is drawing to a close. And this might be a second reason that such a book had to wait so long: It is from this point in time that a full story — with a beginning, a middle and something like an end — can be told.
The attempt to tell it is an ambitious undertaking, and the book produced by historian Idith Zertal and journalist Akiva Eldar is a massive 640-page volume. (Hebrew is more concise than English. A literal English translation would amount to something like 900 pages.) But the book isn’t exactly a single narrative. It is divided into sections dealing with the different aspects of settlement: It opens with a chronicle, a straight political narrative of settlement activity and government actions. It then moves to a fairly well documented side of the story, the theology and ideology of Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful), which was the driving force behind the whole effort. Then come more specialized aspects: the settlers’ culture, the relations with the military, the legal side and, finally, back to politics, the recent Sharon administration. The economic aspect, as the authors readily acknowledge, is sadly missing and would have to wait for further research.
The division into sections might not have been a wise decision. Rather than offering a straightforward chronology, the book jumps back and forth in time to cover the same years, often the same events, from different angles. Zertal and Eldar would have done better to integrate them into one narrative. After all, the different pieces belong together: The relations with the army are indispensable for understanding the legal aspect, the legal entwined with government actions, ideology and theology with public debate and the democratic process, and so on. Despite its enormous value in detailed documentation, the work is edited haphazardly, so much so that readers might sometimes feel that the whole archive is being dumped upon them.
But the book’s deeper flaw lies elsewhere: It fails to articulate what its own pages so clearly add up to, the bottom line that explains why Israel’s government and Israel’s electorate finally rejected the project of settlement. This is what recent years have brought into sharp focus: that Zionism and settlement are ideological opposites.
Zionism is about one territory on this earth where Jews could be a majority, and exercise the right to self-determination. Settlement, on the other hand, is about redeeming the land of our forefathers, as part of the larger plan of religious salvation. Zionism is about a democratic nation state; settlement leads to a binational state with a ruling Jewish minority. For Zionism, a Jewish democracy is the end; for settlers, the Jewish state is but a means to redemption.
The two could avoid facing their rivalry in a cloud of war smoke, or in the effort to combat terrorism or in high rhetoric about what they really share — a belief in the need for a Jewish state. But their ultimate values were destined to clash. The Arab population of the occupied territories is fast approaching 4 million. Along with Israel’s 1 million Arab citizens within the Green Line, Israel would have an Arab majority by 2010. As the meaning of these numbers became clear, the “demographic question” came to the fore: Birth rates in the territories far exceed both those of Jews and those of Arab citizens within the Green Line. Jewish collective self-determination is now at serious risk.
So push has come to shove. And at this crossroad, even a radical hawk like Sharon, being a Zionist, would not give up the Jewish democracy in exchange for “redeemed” territory. The messianic settlers, on the other hand, cling to the territories, even as it is fast becoming clear that staying there means Jews will soon be a minority in their own land. In the settlers’ view, disengagement is unthinkable: The secular state has turned against religious redemption through liberation of the Holy Land; the means have turned against the ends.
For the settlers, the state was never more than a means, which, in retrospect, makes the whole story much easier to understand. They had no qualms about subverting the democratic process with “facts on the ground,” because, as the founding rabbi of the movement, Zvi Yehuda ha-Cohen Kook, put it, settlements are part of “God’s politics… and no earthly politics could counter it.” Now that the means negate the end, some settlers have no qualms even about abandoning the means: Some of their rabbis have repeatedly called religious soldiers to refuse orders of evacuation. Lately some settler polemicists and spiritual leaders have even begun to lament the very choice of means. Some now deem the original alliance with secular Zionism a mistake.
The clash between the two worldviews — Zionism and messianic settlement — was written on the wall, and despite the failure of “Lords of the Land” to articulate it, it leaps at the reader from every page. This is perhaps the final and most important reason that such a book had to wait so long. At this point in time, the inner meaning of the whole struggle becomes clear: It is the drama of Zionism fighting for its life against its most effective, most subversive adversary — the messianic cult of land redeemers.
Despite some loose talk about it, Israel is not on the brink of civil war. Though some might take up arms, the settlers are too small a minority, and most of them will give up their messianic hopes and then gradually, grudgingly, submit to the state. The alternative is just too bleak for most. Diehard believers are dangerous, but they are too few to pose a serious military threat. If they turn against the army, they will lose the remnants of sympathy that many Israelis still harbor for them. But short of civil war, the ideological confrontation is of the same kind that the United States experienced in its most monumental struggle to define itself. America could deny the fundamental opposition between slavery and democracy for so many years, but not forever. The two worldviews were destined to clash, and they finally did. So were settlement and occupation destined to clash with Zionism.
Redemption of territory now stands in stark contrast to what is inscribed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence: Zionism’s moral basis in the “natural right” of all peoples to self-determination. It’s an either-or juncture. If we cling to “redeemed” land, we will have to give up the Jewish majority on which the Zionist vision rests. It’s apartheid with the territories, or democracy without them. With Ariel Sharon, the great patron of settlement for many years, thrust by events into the unlikely role of a kind of Abraham Lincoln, this struggle over the very soul of the Jewish state is unfurling right before our eyes.