Later this month, the 10 month settlement construction slow-down instituted by Israeli PM Netanyahu is set to expire, leaving the PM with what appears on the surface as a difficult choice between holding together his governing coalition and continuing peace talks with the Palestinians. Unfortunately for those pushing this simplistic narrative, the true situation is in many ways much more complex, but in others remains quite simple. More importantly, perhaps, is that the extremists views of the settler movement are largely ignored – allowing this violent and religious group to dictate the terms of negotiations.
Recently I wrote about the settler situation and the threats coming from the settler parties and their representatives in the Knesset. In addition to planning rallies and readying for the immediate resumption of mass construction across the West Bank (2,066 structures are ready to begin construction with a total of 13,000 structures could potentially begin the day after the settlement ‘freeze’ expires), settlers have openly warned that an extension of the settlement ‘freeze’ would result in the fall of the governing coalition and have even gone as far as advocating violence against the Israeli state.
While the growing volume of the settler voice is certainly giving Netanyahu a headache, the settler population represents merely 4.1% of Israelis and if one were to include those who support the settler cause, the percentage would only grow slightly. The fact that Netanyahu is the leader of the settler friendly Likud party and has surrounded himself with other settler supporting politicians, such as FM Lieberman and Deputy PM Danny Dayon – both of whom moonlight as illegal settlers – complicates the situation. Indeed, many politicians in the hawkish governing coalition have come out against an extension of the ‘freeze.’
[tweetmeme] Netanyahu has other options, however. Currently, the PM is looking into alternatives to the dichotomy of all or nothing, pondering options such as allowing construction in specified settlements. As I noted yesterday, none of these options are suitable for the Palestinians, who are likely to walk away from the talks without a full ‘freeze extension.’ The question for Netanyahu is thus whether he supports a militant minority making threats against Israel or the continuation of peace talks.
I pondered this yesterday when I was in the West Bank city of Hebron, which is sharply divided between Palestinians and Israeli settlers. The town has been divided into two sections and has six illegal settlements located in the heart of the historic old city. While the city was once a bustling portrait of trade and commerce, its mercantile foundation has been undermined by the plethora of Israeli military, police, road blocks and watch towers. Furthermore, the anthropological differences between the Israeli settlers and the Arab merchants in Hebron is shocking and somewhat terrifying.
While the Arab section of town is full of merchants trying to coax you into their shops with sweets, tea and conversation, the Israeli side of town is marked by deserted Palestinian shops and young Israeli settlers with large automatic rifles strung across their shoulders. To be sure there was a jovial atmosphere, particularly outside of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, but to this observer, the good humor was somewhat dampened by seeing nearly every boy and man above the age of 16 with a rifle. Indeed, upon entering the Tomb of the Patriarchs, I was told I needed to leave my guns and knives (yes, plural) at the checkpoint. Make no mistake, while settlers are often portrayed as religious Jews seeking to reclaim land they believe to be theirs, they are also part of a veritable mini militia.
In effect, the settler movement consists of a group of religious ideologues armed to the teeth. Moreover, this armed religious movement is willing to and has in the past used violence in order to ensure the demise of peace talks (see: list of recent violent settler actions). To push the envelope further, as I mentioned above, the settlers are threatening to force the collapse of the Israeli government and even use force against those opposing their views. Yet, despite this overwhelming evidence of extremism, the settler movement is not only well represented at the peace talks (US Sec. of State Clinton is set to meet with the abominable Avigdor Lieberman soon), but their demands have taken center stage.
Looking at the goals and means of the settlers, the comparison with Hamas is uncanny.
- Both Hamas and the Israeli settlers are based on strict religious doctrines with a strict political line;
- Both Hamas and the Israeli settlers spew angry rhetoric about the existence of each other: Hamas rejects the existence of Israel in its charter (though has said it would accept the state along 1967 lines) and occasionally lobs rockets into Israel while the settlers consider the use of the term ‘West Bank’ and ‘Palestine’ to be an insult (instead of Judea and Samaria) and consistently attack Palestinians while confiscating Palestinian land;
- Both Hamas and the Israeli settlers are opposed to peace talks and are willing to use force in order to disrupt the talks;
- Both Hamas and the Israeli settlers attack innocent civilians;
- Both Hamas and the Israeli settlers are equipped with more weapons than a small army; and
- Both Hamas and the Israeli settlers have little regard for the value of human life.
Of course, the main difference between the two is the fact that Hamas was democratically elected and the settlers represent but a tiny minority of Israel. Meanwhile, the settler movement is able to undermine the peace talks from within while Hamas is left to attempt to undermine them from the outside. Somehow, though, there is only one group of terrorists.
Photo from Muslim Matters