AT THE end of January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government evacuated the illegal outpost of Amona, not far from the Palestinian city of Ramallah. The government tried every argument it could muster to avoid the dismantlement of the homes of 40 families, who had deceptively built their houses on private Palestinian land some twenty years ago.
But eventually even Netanyahu and his ministers realized that Israel is still a democratic state and that they have to respect the decision of the Supreme Court to dismantle the outpost.
The evacuation was one big show. To paraphrase William Shakespeare, every major player involved in it – the settlers, the police and the government – knew in advance the roles expected of them and acted accordingly. But unlike on the theater stage, in the real world of Israeli politics, the government didn’t act in harmony, but as individuals conspiring to trip their fellow actors and attempting to gain a standing ovation or at least to avoid the jeers of the audience.
The three central government characters – as far as the settlements are concerned – were and still are, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is the undisputed leader of the ultra-right Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), the party of the settlement movement. All three tried to minimize their responsibility for the eviction.
Netanyahu, who is currently being investigated by police on suspicions of corruption, is trying hard not to lose his right-wing base. Liberman and Bennett, who are bitter rivals, share one common understanding and one agenda. Both believe Netanyahu is a “lame duck” figure whose days in office are numbered, when, and not if, the police and the attorney general decide to indict him. Both want to replace Netanyahu as the leader of a united right-wing front.
The settler movement is also highly divided between aging leaders who are losing their influence and the younger generation who are more aggressive and less ready to compromise no matter what, on any topic.
THE THIRD party in the well-staged production was the police. They arrived at the scene with “soft’ determination. They weren’t armed and arrived in broad daylight so as not to frighten babies and young children. They did not wear helmets and were instructed by their commanders to show restraint and be flexible and considerate.
Their treatment of the settlers stood in sharp contrast to their behavior in previous incidents of law and order and public demonstrations. Just a month ago, the police were called to evict nine Israeli-Arab families from a small Beduin village in the Negev desert. They arrived at night, armed with live ammunition, as if entering a war zone and used unnecessary force. A villager was shot and killed after approaching police in his car. Police initially said he had tried to ram them in a nationalistically motivated attack and that he was an Islamic State supporter. However, subsequent video evidence appeared to suggest that he had been shot after being mistaken for a terrorist and had lost control of his car, crushing and killing a police officer. No evidence was offered to support the claims that the dead man, a local school teacher, had radical Islamic ties.
And there are other cases in which police showed brutality in worker demonstrations, against minorities, such as Orthodox Jews and young Ethiopian Jews. Many in Israeli society accused the police of double standard racism and politicization.
And yet despite their softer attitude at Amona the eviction didn’t go smoothly. The young settlers fought them for hours before the mission was accomplished.
AMONA IS just a drop in the ocean. There are more than one hundred illegal outposts. Actually, the phrase “illegal outpost” is a unique Israeli definition. For the entire international community, all Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank are illegal, including all Israeli urban neighborhoods built in East Jerusalem, as evidenced by the recent United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334.
The Israeli colonization project began weeks after the Israeli victory in the Six Day War in 1967, a conflict that was imposed on Israel by the Arab world. The Israeli army conquered and seized the West Bank from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
By all accounts, including from the perspective of international law, it was a justified war. Israel acted in good faith and in self-defense. But, its actions after the war are a different story.
First, Israel declared that all captured territories – Sinai, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, in addition to the West Bank – would be used as bargaining chips and were thus negotiable. They would be returned to Egypt, Syria and Jordan in return for signing peace treaties. This formula of land for peace was also at the heart of the two UN Security Council Resolutions, 242 and 338.
Israel reluctantly accepted them. But not the Arab states. They refused to recognize Israel, and negotiate and make peace with it. Israel still rhetorically adhered to its commitment to use the territories as “pawns” for peace, but in practice began to build settlements. It was in the days – the first decade after the war – when the Labor party ruled the country and not the Right. The settlements were justified and rationalized by “security” concerns and constructed outside the densely populated Palestinian urban centers and in isolated areas designated as of “strategic importance to Israel.”
At the time, the settlements were solely built on “state land.” The Geneva Convention states that an occupier cannot change the status and condition of occupied territories and create facts on the ground. But the law does permit and recognize the occupier – in this case, the Israeli military administration – as the temporary heir of the previous ruler, Jordan. So the state lands owned by Jordan were turned over to Israeli hands.
But then in 1977, the Labor government was ousted and the Israeli electorate voted in the right-wing Likud party, led by then-prime minister Menachem Begin. The gloves came off, the “security” pretext was dumped and the government without any eye winking or apology decided to colonize the land. The right wing and religious parties believe that the West Bank, which they call Judea and Samaria, was given by God to the Jewish people. Period. The other reason for the settlements was to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Begin was ready to offer them limited “autonomy.” The PLO rejected it on the spot.
But then a major historic shift took place. The Labor party led by Yitzhak Rabin returned to power in 1992. The PLO led by Yasser Arafat was at its lowest point. The Palestinian rebellion – the intifada – was crushed by Israel and Arafat was ostracized by his supporters in the Arab world and the West for siding with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.
Out of this deadlock Arafat agreed to negotiate with Israel in what came to be known as the Oslo Accords. Both sides agreed to mutually recognize each other.
Israel began to hand over areas to the Palestinian Authority and Arafat denounced terrorism but didn’t really fight against renegade elements and his rivals, such as Hamas who continued to wage acts of terror including suicide bombings. Despite this, there was an atmosphere of hope in the air. A two-state solution was emerging and a Palestinian state was in the making. Or, so it seemed. But Rabin was murdered by Yigal Amir, a young right-wing zealot, who wanted to stop the peace process. Indeed, he succeeded.
Since then, the peace process has been dying slowly, especially after the Right, led by Netanyahu, returned to power in 1996.
A new phase emerged. The settlers defied the state’s authority and deliberately began to build settlements on private Palestinian land, whether legally purchased or stolen, while the government was turning a blind eye, exactly as in the case of Amona.
TRUE, OCCASIONALLY, the government was forced by the Supreme Court or the international community or out of self-conviction to dismantle some settlements and even evacuated all the settlements in Gaza, in 2005, as decided by prime minister Ariel Sharon. But Sharon died a few years later and Netanyahu, in 2009, became the undisputed ruler of Israel. Sharon was most probably the last Israeli leader who had the determination, guts and courage to take and execute bold and even unpopular decisions.
It is also true that in his rhetoric Netanyahu claims to be committed to the two-state solution, which was forced upon him by the Obama administration. But he has been doing exactly the opposite, to kill the idea. He is drifting more and more to the Right, especially nowadays under the cloud of police investigations.
In June 2017, Israelis and Palestinians will mark 50 years to the Six Day War and the occupation. There are 350,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and another 300,000 Israeli inhabitants, compared with 2 million Palestinians in the West bank and 300,000 in east Jerusalem. The gap between Jews and Arabs in the West Bank and Jerusalem is narrowing. The settlers’ population has doubled in the last decade and a half.
For 50 years, the international community has opposed the settlements and denounced them. But, living in parallel universes, the world, especially the West led by the US, also cooperates with Israel in the security and military fields, and adores its intelligence and cyber capabilities. No wonder that Israeli leaders feel that they can get away with the settlements.
Colonization is now in full gear. The notion of a Palestinian state is evaporating. The Israeli Right, determined, manipulative, messianic and zealous, has won the battle over the left of center. It loathes the Supreme Court and tries to erode its authority and legality.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, has launched an aggressive campaign against anyone who stands in his way – liberal circles, his opponents within the party and outside it, and above all the media are labeled “unpatriotic,” “traitors,” “left-wingers” and “Bolsheviks.” On the other hand, the opposition is divided, soft, lazy and passive.
In reaction to the Amona eviction, the government announced that it would build 6,000 new apartments in the West Bank for Jewish settlers. The Israeli Right believes that it now has a free hand to do whatever it likes, and that it enjoys a tailwind after the election of US President Donald Trump. But Trump is unpredictable. He promised to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and is not going to do it. With a few nuances, his administration has called on Israel to stop building new settlements and expanding existing ones.
The colonial process, which was somehow hesitantly initiated and executed by the Labor party, was taken over with full steam by the Right. Nothing will stop it, not to mention reverse it. Only a new world order can change what now seems inevitable. Peace can be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians only if Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree to divide the world into spheres of interests and impose their will on the two sides.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman