Disengagement and Its Discontents: What Will the Israeli Settlers Do?

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 09-Jul-05 | Source: International Crisis Group


Scheduled for 15 August 2005, Israel's disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank has already begun. How Israel for the first time evacuates settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories will have profound implications for Israeli-Palestinian relations, but also for Israeli society. Regardless of one's assessment of the settlers and their enterprise -- regarded internationally as illegal, by many Israelis as irresponsible and by others as the embodiment of the Zionist project -- it is bound to be a traumatic event for Israel. If it should be mishandled, accompanied by violent settler resistance or Palestinian attacks, the prospects for subsequent peace would be much bleaker. The international community's interest is to press for complete disengagement and then a credible follow-on political process.

That the disengagement plan has been initiated and propelled virtually single-handedly by Ariel Sharon, dubbed by many the father of their movement, has made it all the more distressing to the settlers and all the more difficult to combat. Beyond the erosion of their support within Israeli society at large, settlers have suffered from sharpening internal differences, based on generation, worldview, and territorial location. A minority is determined to resist any evacuation, including forcibly, seeing it as a betrayal of faith and a threat to the legitimacy of Zionism. But even among the majority who consider the battle for Gaza lost, tensions exist between those who believe a traumatic, violent evacuation would lessen the prospect of further withdrawals and those who believe it would further alienate the public. Less pragmatic elements, in particular young settlers who evince little loyalty for either the state or the institutions of their elders, are setting the tone, intimidating the more moderate and engaging in disruptive activities, such as blocking highways and encouraging soldiers to disregard disengagement-related orders.

As the mid-August onset of the disengagement plan approaches, and with the defeat of parliamentary and judicial efforts to thwart it, fears have increased that they may resort to more desperate tactics, such as violence against Palestinians (as already witnessed in the attempted killing of a Palestinian youth in late June) in the hope of provoking violence in return, an attempt to blow up Muslim holy sites, or an attempt on the life of Ariel Sharon, who has certainly taken personal as well as political risks in bringing the process this far.

This background report describes the disengagement plan, maps out the settler constituencies that are bracing for it, and assesses the resistance scenarios being contemplated. Several conclusions emerge, based on the assumption -- now shared by a large majority of disengagement opponents and settlers -- that the plan will go through, no matter the scope of last-minute efforts to derail it.

  • The tone is being set by ideological settlers in general and extremist elements in particular, though most settlers can be characterised as moderate or pragmatic, in particular so-called economic settlers who live in large settlement blocs abutting the Green Line and do not fear eventual evacuation. With the Yesha Council -- the institution representing most settlers -- either unwilling or unable to rein in their activities, the likelihood is high of a difficult, possibly drawn-out affair; some bloodshed is likely, though violence will probably be sporadic and localised. Divisions within the settler community, the absence of a coordinated strategy, and the marginalisation of the radicalised hilltop youth, exacerbate the perils.
  • The key to a relatively smooth withdrawal lies in drawing a wedge between various strands of the settler movement, in particular distinguishing between those infiltrating the settlements in order to stir disorder, and long-time residents. The government and security forces need to treat the latter with as much dignity as possible and the former with as much firmness as required. Although there are many reasons to criticise the performance of the Yesha Council leaders in this period, it is important for the authorities to work with the relatively mainstream settler establishment on relocation and housing to prevent the emergence of a vacuum likely to be filled by more radical figures from the charismatic militant right. Some suggest dialogue should be between settlers and symbols of the state they mostly respect -- police, army, and president -- rather than politicians who lack legitimacy in their eyes.
  • At the end of the day, the battle over Gaza does not chiefly concern Gaza, but rather what comes next. The various actors -- Sharon, the settlers, the Palestinian Authority and militant Palestinian groups -- will gauge how to act based on what scenario (more or less traumatic, more or less confrontational) best fits their vision for the future. The international community, led by the Quartet, ought to have one priority: to ensure that disengagement is complete and is followed by a credible political process leading to far more substantive territorial withdrawals and settlement evacuation, an end to the armed confrontation and the reining in of militant Palestinian groups. It should press both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government to curb any attacks accompanying the disengagement and then to engage in a genuine political process after it is conducted.

Amman/Brussels, 7 July 2005

Middle East Report N°43
7 July 2005