Settlers in the West Bank

Ethan Bronner of the New York Times considers the attitudes of Jewish settlers toward the future of their settlements.  Their homes sit on land that would be part of a deal for a Palestinian state, if that ever happens.  It’s clear that the the most committed settlers are bitter about the handover of Gaza to the Palestinians and would be devastated if the West Bank (Judea and Samaria, as they call it) became part of a Palestinian state.  But Bronner contends that his interviews with settlers suggest the settlers, even the most ideologically committed, are divided and would not all violently resist the Israeli army if they were to be evacuated.

I’m not posting this to advocate evacuating them.  In general, I think that the situation is so sad and intractable that I have no idea where to begin.  The Jewish desire for a state after centuries of persecution is certainly understandable and, I think, necessary (but not necessarily in an eschatological sense – another area I need to learn more about).  The whole thing didn’t get off to a great start in 1947-48, but the neighboring Arab states and the British Empire had a lot to do with that too.  Needless to say, Palestinian terrorism is sickening, and the contempt that some of the settlers and some other Israelis display for the Palestinians (some of which is described in the article) is horrible too.  So this post isn’t about advocating a solution.  It’s more about understanding the mindset of the settlers.

Here is how Bronner breaks down the West Bank’s settler population:

There are 300,000 settlers in the West Bank (another 200,000 Israeli Jews live in East Jerusalem) and they are not monolithic. A third are politically and socially indistinguishable from most of Israel and moved there for suburban-style housing and close-knit communities. Another third are ultra-Orthodox and do not consider themselves settlers or Zionists, wanting only to live together in an appropriate environment somewhere in Israel.

The remaining 100,000 are ideologically (and, most of them, religiously) committed to staying. They have a fairly uniform view of the situation: most believe that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation; that if the world wants a state for Palestinians, it should set it up next door in Jordan; that all of the West Bank, which they call by the biblical name Judea and Samaria, is a central part of the Jewish homeland; and that Arabs will do everything they can to destroy Israel in any borders, so staying in the West Bank is a matter not only of history but of security.

Bronner points to a trend among some of the younger settlers who have taken a different direction than the leaders of the settlement movement.  Bronner writes that these leaders lost some of their prestige after Gaza was lost.  Here is Bronner’s description:

At the same time, the younger ideological settlers are increasingly mystical and have little concern about whether they are causing conflict. They view their goals as at the center of global history. Beards and sidelocks are longer than in the past and the fringed shawl and phylacteries normally reserved for morning prayer are now worn by some all day long.

Their main sources of guidance are ancient Jewish texts and rabbinical pronouncements. After the 2005 withdrawal, Mr. Zar said, his generation of settlers started living increasingly by the motto “God is king.”

Such settlers have also increasingly focused their energies on the veneration of holy places like Joseph’s Tomb, a tiny stone compound in the heart of the Palestinian city of Nablus — or ancient Shechem — that many Jews believe is the final burial place of the son of Jacob, the biblical patriarch.

Once a month, busloads of settlers go at midnight under heavy guard. It is a moment of unparalleled joy for them.

And they view Torah study as among their main weapons. Nearly every day, for example, Rabbi Elishama Cohen and a group of students sneak into Homesh, one of the destroyed settlements in the northern West Bank, to pray and study.

Since Israel forced its residents out of there four years ago in a gesture to the Palestinians, getting back in requires driving through farm fields to evade Israeli military checkpoints.

Stripped of all it once had — houses, a pool, streetlights — Homesh, with its overgrown weeds and stray bits of concrete, feels today like the remnant of a nuclear winter.

But that has not dimmed the devotion of those who keep coming or their conviction that doing so will change the strategic equation.

“We never leave Homesh empty,” said a man who gave his name as Zvi Yehuda as he prepared surreptitiously to spend the night there, revolver on hip. “The creator of the universe gave us this land. It is a commandment to live in it and settle it. Anyone who stands in our way — whether pharaoh or Obama — will be punished by God.”

They tend to believe that they will triumph by God’s power and that they ought not take up arms against their fellow Jews.  I guess time will tell what all this means and if Bronner is right in his portrait.


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