Beer Sheva, Israel – There is nothing that causes as much heated debate in Israel as the future of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. It is now clear to most Israelis that if there is ever going to be a final political agreement with the Palestinians, it will require that some, if not necessarily all, of the settlements be dislodged and evacuated. A permanent plan would have to create a Palestinian state that is compact and continuous – unlike the disconnected wedges and enclaves of Palestinian autonomy areas that were created by the Oslo accord and that have left the settlements in place. Although this reality is undeniable, the practicality of settlement removal has largely been avoided by all Israeli governments, including those of the left, even as that avoidance makes the eventual uprooting of the growing settler population more difficult.

There are today approximately 200,000 Jewish settlers living in a variety of West Bank and Gaza communities. They have arrived in those areas continually over the past 35 years, ever since Israel’s occupation of the region after its victory in the 1967 war. For the first 10 years, settlement was limited to the eastern edges of the Jordan Valley by the Labor governments of Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. They did not allow settlements in the densely populated Palestinian upland areas, assuming that this area would eventually become an autonomous Palestinian region linked to Jordan.

It was only after the Yom Kippur war of 1973 and, more important, the rise of Israel’s first right-wing Likud governments, led by Menachem Begin from 1977 to 1983, that settlement policy was extended to include the whole of the West Bank region. Spurred on by the religious settler movement Gush Emunim, settlements began to sprout up throughout the mountainous interior as well as in close proximity to the “green line” boundary between Israel and the West Bank, with their inhabitants hoping to prevent any future Israeli withdrawal from those areas. Gush Emunim supporters believed that the land conquered in 1967 had been returned to its rightful owners as promised to their biblical ancestors by God. Hence, they were not interested in such practical problems as demography, security or the political rights of another people. And they set out to make it as difficult as possible for any government to relinquish the land in a future political agreement.

From 1984 onward, Israel was governed by several national coalition governments – perhaps more adequately described as governments of national paralysis – consisting of the left-wing Labor and right-wing Likud parties. In each instance, the coalition agreements included a clause freezing all further settlement activity. And yet from 1984 to 2002 the settler population increased from a mere 30,000 to approximately 200,000 (not including another 200,000 living in East Jerusalem, which Israelis do not consider part of the West Bank).

Even under Labor governments, settlement activity did not cease. Few new settlements were constructed, but all the existing settlements underwent consolidation and expansion as new neighborhoods were built, new settlers arrived, and a second generation of settler families grew up and made their homes in these places.

In fact, the so-called settlement freeze proved to be a lifesaver for the many small communities that had been established under the Likud governments. Preventing the construction of additional settlements allowed small ones to grow to sizes that made them viable as functioning communities.

The Likud governments, eager to keep the West Bank as part of Israel, actively promoted the growth of the settler population through large subsidies – cheap land, low- interest mortgages and lower income tax rates for individuals, as well as subsidies to local government councils. (Labor governments attempted to cut back on these subsidies but often met with political opposition from their coalition partners.) Israelis moving to the West Bank side of the green line could exchange a small three- or four-room apartment in a crowded Israeli town for a bigger house in a low-density community, with government benefits not available to people living just a few miles away inside Israel proper. It was basically a case of suburban colonization.

The settlements, like communities inside Israel, are governed by municipal and regional councils that provide public services and control land use planning and development. A recent study by B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, shows that while the built-up areas of the settlements take up only 1.7 percent of the land in the West Bank, the area encompassed within the municipal boundaries of the settlements takes up 6.8 percent of the land. Regional councils, which provide services to smaller, scattered communities through a regional authority, govern an additional 35.1 percent. Together, these settlement councils effectively control 41.9 percent of the area in the West Bank.

After decades of growth, these settlements have created a completely new landscape. They are no longer outposts on exposed hills, but are fully developed communities with schools, commercial centers, industrial zones and municipal services all created for the settler population – needless to say, the Palestinian neighbors who occupy the same geographical space do not share in these benefits.

The very solidity of these planned developments makes it almost impossible to remove all of the settler population. Instead, the debate, even among left-wing Israelis who oppose the settlements, is over how to redraw the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state in such a way as to retain as large a number of settlers and settlements on as little territory as possible. This would probably require transfer of an equal amount of territory from within Israel itself – some have suggested the expansion of the Gaza Strip region – as compensation for the settlement territory that would be formally annexed to Israel.

But even if such a territorial solution were to be acceptable to both sides, this still leaves around 35 percent to 40 percent of the settler population living in areas farther east, into the West Bank, who would have to be evacuated. Israelis left and right already fear a day when the government will have to send the army in to move these settlements if the settlers refuse to go. Even the best outcome would probably mean violent demonstrations of the type seen in the early 1980’s when the Northern Sinai settlements were dismantled as part of the implementation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement; a worst case would involve armed confrontation between soldiers and settlers. This is a major reason why even the Labor governments that negotiated and supported the Oslo accords did not stop settlement growth and instead allowed population expansion even at the cost of creating further resentment among the Palestinians.

Now, however, public support of the settlements is declining. Recent surveys show that a majority of Israelis believe that eventually there will be a Palestinian state and that the settlements will have to move (and this regardless of the recent vote by the Likud Party to oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state). Early in the development of the settlements, settlers argued that their towns contributed to Israel’s security. That is not accepted by most Israelis now, and in fact the settlements are seen for what they are, namely a security burden. Public support is likely to decline further if they are also perceived as the main obstacle on the way to a final peace agreement.

Unlike other matters that will need to be negotiated with the Palestinians, the settlement problem, created and expanded by successive Israeli governments, will have to be resolved by Israel itself. For Israelis who have lived in the West Bank for more than 25 years, for those who were born there, there will be heartbreak, even if the government can give them housing elsewhere. That is one price they and Israeli society will have to pay for a stable peace.

This article ran in the New York Times on May 21, 2002

Prof. David Newman is Chairman of the Department of Politics, Ben Gurion University, Beersheva