Hard-core settlers and their discontents


In June, JTA published a special series of stories about radical settlers, with Dina Kraft reporting from Havat Gilad and other illegal outposts in the West Bank.

On Monday, The New York Times published its own piece examining "hard-core" settlers, with Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner reporting from Havat Gilad for the second story in a series called "Unsettled." They write:

HAVAT GILAD, West Bank — Of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, those who live in unauthorized hilltop outposts like this one, a hardscrabble unpaved collection of 20 trailers, are considered the most dangerous.

They are fervent believers that there is a divine plan requiring them to hold this land. With many of them armed and all of them furious over the 2005 withdrawal of Jews from Gaza and four West Bank settlements, they live by the slogan: “Never forget! Never forgive!” The building of a Palestinian state would require them to move, and Israelis fear that any attempt to force them out could cause a bloody internal clash.

But scores of interviews over several months, including with settler firebrands, produced a different conclusion. Divided, leaderless and increasingly mystical, such settlers will certainly resist evacuation but are unlikely to engage in organized armed conflict with the Israeli military. Their belief that history can be best understood as a series of confrontations between the Jews and those who seek their destruction, and their faith in their ultimate triumph, make them hesitant to turn against their own, even in dire circumstances.

“We are idealists, but we are not crazy,” said Ayelet Sandak, who was removed from her Gaza settlement home and is helping to build an unauthorized outpost, Maoz Esther, with the goal of both expanding the Jewish presence and diverting the military. “By building outposts we are keeping the army away from the main settlements. We are sure that if we are strong, we will not be forced to move.”

As part of its commitment to a two-state solution, Israel has promised to dismantle two dozen outposts like this one in the coming months. The Obama administration’s Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell, is back in the region trying to set up a summit meeting for new peace talks. Yet officials have been slow to act on these outposts, worried that the move could break this society in two.

There are a few sweeping declarations in this story that betray more about the authors’ preconceptions than they do anything about Israel. The authors write that "Israelis fear that any attempt to force [radical settlers] out could cause a bloody internal clash," but that "scores of interviews over several months" reveal "a different conclusion": that "settlers will certainly resist evacuation but are unlikely to engage in organized armed conflict with the Israeli military."

This clever phrasing makes it seem like the authors are discovering something most Israelis do not know, but quite the opposite is actually true. While many Israelis view radical settlers as deeply problematic, few are worried about "organized armed conflict with the Israeli military." Such phraseology betrays only the Times’ reporters’ own ignorance; upon further examination — reporting work — they discover their preconceptions are untrue.

Likewise, later in the piece Bronner and Kershner write:

Jewish terror is not new. A religious student assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and a settler, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron in 1994. Yitzhak Fhantich, who used to lead the Jewish section inside the Shin Bet security agency, said that based on recent history and the goals of extremists, “I cannot exclude that there will be violence, that the prime minister could be targeted or that mosques could be attacked. They are looking to stop any peace process.”

But interviews with settlers suggest that the threat of violence is largely a political strategy. The great majority say they realize that if the bulldozers arrive, their fight is over.

“We cannot allow ourselves to wait until the soldiers are at our doors,” noted David Ha’ivri, a spokesman for the northern West Bank settlers. “We must prepare strategic maneuvers in advance.”

By that, he mostly means politics. If the soldiers do come, the settlers are unlikely to fight. “People won’t leave their homes peacefully but they will not shoot soldiers,” predicted Shaul Goldstein, who is the leader of the regional council of the Gush Etzion settler bloc and is considered a moderate.

A senior Israeli general in the West Bank agreed. He said the army was awaiting orders to evacuate the two dozen outposts and was preparing for everything, including soldier refusal and settler bloodshed directed both at Palestinians and at security forces. But, he added, speaking under army rules of anonymity: “I don’t think there will be a lot of resistance. Deep inside, most settlers love Israel and love the Israeli Army.”

A Nation’s Moral Core

That assertion may seem surprising, especially after the army’s removal of 8,000 settlers from Gaza four years ago, an operation that burns in the hearts of the settler community. But there are several reasons to take it seriously.

Here, too, the authors betray their own mistaken preconception. The Israeli general’s assertion may seem surprising — only to those who have not done their homework.

While radical Jews in the West Bank occasionally fight back against Israeli soldiers confronting them, anyone who thinks settlers will adopt a policy of firing on Israeli soldiers misunderstands who these people are and the relationship they have with Israeli soldiers. More likely, their evacuation will look like the evacuation of Jews from Gaza in 2005, more or less (that’s not to say one or two crazies wouldn’t use a gun). This realization, too, is presented as sleuth reporting by the Times. Actually, it’s a common perception in Israel.

And, by the way, there’s a difference between Jewish terror — Goldstein murdering Palestinian worshipers, Jews planting bombs in Palestinian schools — and radical settlers grappling with IDF soldiers coming to evacuate them. The Times story unfairly conflates the two.

Part of the problem with the Times’ reporting generally, and on the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular, is that it relies on well-trod generalizations and preconceptions that don’t hold up under scrutiny. One example is the notion, which we examined above, that radical settlers would foment a "bloody internal clash."

Here’s another, from this story: "Most Israelis now see the [2005 Gaza] evacuation as having been a disaster."

Really? If this is true, where’s the polling data to back it up? Even with the problems that have followed the evacuation — Hamas rocket fire into Israel, the war last January — it’s not clear that "most Israelis" view it as a disaster. I’d guess that most Israelis view it as having been painful but necessary at some point, given the demographic realities of Gaza (1.5 million Palestinians vs. 9,000 Jews) and the cost to Israel in bloodshed and resources of maintaining a Jewish presence there. I could be wrong. But one thing I would not do is make such an assertion without any data to back it up.

To their credit, the piece by Bronner and Kershner is mostly on-target, even if it betrays certain biases in some places. Perhaps most importantly, the piece provides some context about the settlers — something that too often is absent from the Times’ reporting on Jews in the West Bank. Bronner and Kershner write:

Indeed, viewed outside their conflict with the Palestinians, many settlers can seem a model of selfless devotion, choosing to live in great modesty with little comfort, dedicated to children and community. Many are professionals — doctors, lawyers and teachers…

There are 300,000 settlers in the West Bank (another 200,000 Israeli Jews live in East Jerusalem) and they are not monolithic. A third are politically and socially indistinguishable from most of Israel and moved there for suburban-style housing and close-knit communities. Another third are ultra-Orthodox and do not consider themselves settlers or Zionists, wanting only to live together in an appropriate environment somewhere in Israel.

The remaining 100,000 are ideologically (and, most of them, religiously) committed to staying.

While the actions of the radical few among the settlers dominate this story, and newspaper headlines, these lines more accurately describe the vast (silent) majority of the settler movement and how they live. They only get a few lines in this story, but to be fair, that’s appropriate in a story specifically about "the hard core."

It’s only not fair when that context fails to appear generally in the Times’ reporting on the settlers.

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