Seth Freedman
The Guardian (Opinion)
March 25, 2010 - 12:00am

The cost of building Israeli settlements in the occupied territories stands at more than $17bn, according to a report released this week. The painstaking study into the economics of construction in the West Bank encompasses every building and road in the settlements, which cover a combined space of 12m square metres, and in doing so quantifies the enormity of the 43-year-old project of colonisation.

Not included in the cost calculations are the vast military resources spent guarding the settler community, nor the massive subsidies dished out by the government to those dwelling east of the Green Line. Were those to be factored in, the cumulative price paid to maintain the settlement scheme would be far higher, demonstrating even further the tenacity of successive governments and electorates in ploughing on with the illegal venture.

Much is made of the average Israeli's supposed antipathy towards the settlement enterprise, yet the facts on the ground tell a very different story. What began as a casually dismissed effort by a bunch of radicals on a windswept hillside in Samaria has morphed into a 500,000-strong unstoppable force – and all under the watchful eye of Israeli voters.

Daniella Weiss, currently mayor of Kedumim and one of the most prominent settler leaders, was amongst the initial wave of settlers, and described to me the reaction of the non-believers to the Gush Emunim faithful's actions:

"'Who are these strange hallucinating people?' they would ask. 'What are they doing [in these] Biblical hills? There's nothing there!'... They thought they'd be able to control us, to keep us in place and watch over us. They thought we'd grow tired and go back to Tel Aviv… This was the start of Kedumim."

This early success was a shot in the arm for wave after wave of successive would-be settlers. Bolstered by the founding of Kedumim, they also drew strength from the reluctant acquiescence of the incumbent Israeli cabinet, headed by Yitzhak Rabin, to their activities in the West Bank. That the leftwing government of the day chose to pander to the movement, rather than to nip it in the bud, speaks either of incomprehensible weakness, or, more likely, of an unwillingness to give up the land that had a profound historical resonance for many Jews.

However, Israelis' gradual warming to the settler movement was not based simply on romantic notions of dwelling on the same soil as their ancestors 2,000 years previously. More pragmatic considerations swayed the majority of Israelis' opinions, who were won over by constant propaganda claiming settlements were vital for the protection of "Israel proper". In Weiss's eyes too, settlers are the soldiers on the front line, guaranteeing the safety of those back home: "[We] represent something… this belief that we came here to stay for good. Whoever represents this gives life to the people who sit comfortably in the pubs [of Tel Aviv and elsewhere]"

Were ordinary Israeli citizens truly to believe the opposite, there is no way they would continue to accept their sons and daughters being sent to guard settlements during their compulsory military service. Likewise, there would be a highly vocal mass movement demanding an end to the settlement enterprise as a way to defuse tensions with the Palestinians and bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Instead, the political scene is dominated by rightwing, hardline politicians with little to no interest in bringing settlement activity to a halt, and those few leftwingers whose voices are carried by the local media are struggling to find a sizeable majority to back their calls for change. External pressure on Israel from the likes of the United States and European Union serves only to provoke a siege-mentality response from Israelis and plays into the hands of the paranoiacs on the Israeli right.

Along with my co-author, I have been researching life in Israeli settlements for over two years, and a belief held by settlers in almost every town and outpost in which we stayed was that not only do they have the right to remain where they are, but that no government would now dare try to uproot them en masse. Many cite the disengagement as proof that not only would it prove beyond the government's means to try to enact a withdrawal 50 times larger than that which occurred in Gaza, but that subsequent events have shown that handing back land has only further endangered Israeli lives.

Regardless of the truth of such claims, the fact that so many non-settler Israelis believe the hype means there is precious little objection to politicians' business-as-usual approach towards West Bank settlements. The real task facing those calling for concessions from Israel is not preventing a few hundred homes being built in this or that settlement, but convincing Israeli citizens collectively once and for all that the entire settlement project is doing them untold harm.

A 12m square metre dragon is far too big for any one knight to slay alone without backing from the Israeli public and their supporters overseas. Given the centrality of the settlement issue to the deadlocked negotiations, without a clear and concrete plan of action to reverse the settler tide the region is doomed to remain mired in stagnation. But stagnation in the mainstream political arena does not equate to stagnation in the settlements, whose leaders thrive on the inaction and indecision of other, weaker political forces.

The scale and sophistication of today's settlements compared with their primitive forebears is a stark lesson in what can be achieved by radicals and rank outsiders if no one stands up to their misdeeds. Those who took their eye off the ball for the last four decades must not make the same mistake again, for the long-term good of every individual on both sides of the bitter conflict.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017