Early this morning, Israeli security forces and Jewish residents clashed in the West Bank settlement of Havat Gilad. Police and Civil Administration officials arrived at the community near Yitzhar at 4:30 in the morning to tear down a number of unauthorized structures. During the confrontation that ensued, settlers threw rocks and police fired rubber bullets and tear gas. 15 people were injured and 8 were arrested.
Although such clashes are not commonplace, they are becoming seemingly more frequent. This battle between settlers to ensure the permanence of their outlying communities and of the police and military to contain unauthorized settlement growth has, in recent years, drawn more attention, particularly as security incidents between Israeli forces and West Bank Palestinians have become less frequent and less violent. Incidents have largely centered on the dismantling of settlements and bulldozing of homes, synagogues, and yeshivot, but have also included Jewish rebuilding of destroyed buildings, planting on state lands, and even attacks on Jewish hikers.
Whatever the specific trigger, it is becoming clear that ideologically committed settlers are so committed to residing in the land, that they are willing to confront state security forces, at times violently, to remain. Aside from settlement itself, these residents have put considerable energies into raising the cost of territorial withdrawal to the level of near-political suicide for right-wing politicians in particular. These developments have had important reverberations in Israeli policy regarding the territories.
While the peace process with the Palestinian Authority is largely moribund, the Israeli government has made efforts to restart talks. At the same time, there has been a greater emphasis by Israeli negotiators on preserving Israeli control over large settlement blocs than in the past. Wanting to limit the costs of settlement evacuation to a minimum, Israel has preferred to engage in “quiet” operations at “outposts” like the one at Havat Gilad than to take on established large communities.
Yet residents of these areas, by the very nature of their communities’ pioneer status, are often more ideologically committed to preserving them than those who live in the more suburban recognized communities. As such, policymakers have begun to more vocally toy with the idea of engaging in territorial withdrawals which would leave these residents on the “Palestinian side” of any future border. Rather than expel ideologically committed settlers from their homes, so the argument goes, they can may remain and become citizens of a Palestinian state.
In October 2002, the Peace Index surveyed Israelis on this subject asking: “What do you think of the idea that Israeli will demand, in a permanent peace, that Jewish settlers who wish to continue to live in areas passed to the Palestinian Authority be guaranteed that they will be allowed to remain living there?”
October 2010: In peace, should Jewish settlers continue to live in Palestinian Authority controlled areas?
Amongst the general population, 49.7% are opposed to the idea while 44.1% are in favor. The most popular response is strong opposition, however the second strongest is weak support. Parsed between the Jewish and Arab populations, the trend continues for the former but differs for the latter. Jewish Israelis are 44.2% in support and 48.5% opposed with strong opposition as the most popular response and weak support just behind. One may reasonably hypothesize on the basis of popular political rhetoric that opposition correlates to a fear of Palestinian violence against those who remain while lukewarm support comes from those who fear violence between Israelis resulting from another expulsion.
Among the Israeli Arabs, another picture emerges. Opposition claims a clear majority at 56.7% to 43.3% support, while strong opposition is again the most popular response. However, the second most popular response is strong support! Strong opposition can easily be attributed to the belief among Palestinians that all lands east of the Green Line are solely and legitimately theirs to control. Strong support is less obvious: it may be correlated with a belief that the removal of Israelis is less important than extending Palestinian sovereignty. Or there may be a fear that the threat of removing Israelis from their homes will prevent Israel from engaging in any withdrawal whatsoever. It may also suggest a belief that the whole of the land should be Palestinians, so removal or toleration of Jewish residents makes no difference on either side of the Green Line.
The last time the Peace Index asked questions like this of Jewish Israelis in 1996 and 1998, the balance was in support rather than opposition. The options posed were these: “If an agreement with the Palestinians demands an evacuation of Jewish settlements, and the residents refuse to evacuate, the government should: 1) allow them to stay at their own risk, or 2) remove them from the settlements even if this involves the use of force.”
Should Israel allow Jewish residents to remain in territories after withdrawal or should it forcibly remove them?
Greater support for residents to remain (as well as greater uncertainty) may be an artifact of the wording of the question, here emphasizing an explicit choice between abandonment or forcible eviction. This may suggest that Jewish Israelis would be more inclined to allow settlers to remain in territories from which they may withdraw if they fear violence would result from their expulsion. It may also be the reverse: opposition to such an approach today may reflect a belief that Palestinians pose more of a threat to settlers who remain than they may have 10 years ago. However, given that Palestinian terrorism was comparatively a greater problem in the late 1990s than it is today, this may be a problematic assertion.
Taken as a whole, these statistics suggest that territorial withdrawal without settlement removal would not be a popular political program among most Israelis today. Although it would certainly be politically less explosive than settlement-by-settlement evictions, neither the Jewish majority nor the settlers are likely to support a state-sponsored abandonment of these areas’ residents. For policymakers interested in pursuing this approach, it would be important to determine if this opposition is determined by a fear of Palestinian violence, a diminished fear of Israeli-on-Israeli violence, or something else altogether.