It’s very funny how my feelings about settlements have changed over the last 12 years. When I first came to Israel, I thought they were inexcusably bad things, and that settlers themselves were just out to make trouble. Like most people, I saw them as an obstruction to peace.
Then I actually met a few settlers. They were aware of how many people feel about them, and would sometimes sound a little defensive when discussing where they lived. But aside from these touchy issues, they were remarkably normal people. They were all religious, and clearly felt very emotionally attached to where they were living.
Then Cap’n Crunch and I drove through the West Bank en route from Jerusalem to Arad. It was about this time of year 10 years ago, and I was completely taken with the beauty of the place: the rocky soil, the vineyards on every hillside with the leaves turning red and gold, the houses nestled in clusters in the settlements. The barbed wire and fences were the only things I saw to regret, and a little thought suggested to me that these are not because of the Jews, but because of the Arabs.
Over the succeeding years, I have given extensive thought to the concept of settlements. Despite what many liberal Westerners like to say, settling territory conquered in a defensive war against our neighbors (Jordan, Egypt, and Syria) is not a violation of any international statute. And despite what many liberal Westerners would have felt about it, Israel would have been perfectly within her rights to expel every Arab from that land (as they could have done to the Israeli Arabs who remained after the war of independence). Israel rarely gets any credit for allowing the majority of Arabs to remain in their homes after wars in which most of those Arabs either fought against Israel or sided with the enemy. Who else has done all that for a sworn enemy?
Clearly, if the Arabs who remained were to demonstrate a commitment to a peaceful, two-state solution, there would be no justification for Jews to build in conquered territories. However, the Arabs in this part of the world have never shown the slightest interest in having a Jewish state in their midst. Their feelings about Jews were made quite clear when they refused to accept the Partition Plan and attempted to conquer the Jewish portion of the partition. Their refusal to leave Israel in peace until 1967 (when there were no settlements, and Arabs were in control of the Temple Mount and the entire Old City), and their attempt again in 1973 to destroy the country make very clear that a two-state solution is unacceptable to them. Nothing they have done as a group since then suggests that they have changed their minds. I don’t have any close Arab acquaintances, but I know some Jews who do. From them I learn that there are at least some ordinary Arabs who dislike the P.A.’s policies, who only ask to be able to work for a living and feed their families. But even this does not necessarily mean that they want a Jewish state in their midst; they might well prefer a Palestinian state that is committed to statecraft and serving its people.
And if the problem were just political, I could understand that too, to some extent. But during the last decade or so I (and whoever in the rest of the world is paying attention) have seen Arabs destroy the synagogue in Jericho, Joseph’s Tomb in Ramallah, and archeological treasures underneath the Temple Mount. There is not simply a desire among them to have a state of their own; like the Taliban destroying the giant Buddhas in Afghanistan, there is a desire to erase anything that is not Muslim from their midst. That smacks of holy war, not politics.
I can’t say I blame the Arabs for feeling this way. If I were raised on a diet of Koran and was taught that Jews were descendants of pigs and monkeys, I would probably feel the same. It makes their intractability the more understandable, and their violence against Jews less surprising. There are two attitudes one can adopt towards this type of situation: give up and leave (not an option) or stand our ground. By standing our ground I mean that we do not give in to terrorism, and that we do whatever is necessary to ensure our own safety. One way this is achieved is by controlling the roads in the territories, and one way to ensure that the government and IDF control the roads is to make it necessary by having Jews live out here. It may seem very back door-y to do that, but since there is nothing illegal and much to be gained by it, why not? Given all the other reasons to live out here (air, weather, proximity to holy sites, cost of housing in the rest of Israel, community), that is simply another.
Despite that, Israel still does not show a full commitment to standing her ground. There was a really good editorial not long ago (Caroline Glick, "The Disappearance of Law", Jerusalem Post, October 17, 2008) which described how the rule of law is not enforced with any degree of conviction over Israel’s Arab citizens and residents. This sends a message that they are not expected to obey the laws here, and that implies that they have their own state already, if not on paper then informally at least. This is one source of the security problems here. The flare-up between Yitzhar and the neighboring Arab village demonstrates the disgust which many Israelis feel with the government’s lack of law enforcement commitment. After the infiltration and stabbing of a 9-year-old child, the residents of Yitzhar were faced with having to endure further infiltrations and stabbings (and very likely killings) or taking the law into their own hands. Arabs are not Westerners, and have a very different perspective on rivalries. For them, non-reaction invites further aggression, and the residents of Yitzhar know this. To entrust their safety to the government, for whom non-reaction is a typical response to Arab aggression (whether it’s the stabbing of a child in a settlement or firing of rockets into Israeli cities), would be to invite further–and possibly more severe–attacks. I don’t know if I would have done what the people in Yitzhar did, but I can certainly see why they did it.
Like the rest of Israel, the issue of the settlements is complicated. When one lives in Israel proper, one knows that the Arabs and most of the West have feelings ranging from discomfort to hatred toward Israel. When one lives over the Green Line, one has all that to deal with, plus the hatred, resentment, and demonization of much of the Israeli population, plus the much closer proximity to the Arabs, whatever their individual feelings toward us. When we made aliyah, we knew we were going into battle (and taking our children with us). And by moving out to the Gush, we’ve taken that battle up to the front lines. I had to cope with a lot of fear before I felt ready to do this. If the other people out here were only here for the quality of life and the perfect weather, I would probably not have been willing to live here. Unlike Beit Shemesh, it’s not just another place to live in Israel. But after spending a Shabbat out here, we saw that the people out here value the quality of life but also recognize that we are involved in a struggle for the Jewish state’s right to exist and that we have an essential role to play. Knowing that we are all here for the same reason, and that all of us have the right to be here and are willing to exercise that right, whatever the risk, makes it possible.