Donald Trump president is the present which every right-wing politician wished for at Christmas. Or Channuka in the case of the Israeli right-wing. Emboldened by his election, the settler movement feels a world of possibilities is opening up.
Barack Obama had a famously testy relationship with the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. As a parting gift, Obama refused to veto a UN Security Council resolution declaring that the creation of settlements in the occupied territories “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”. Under the Geneva Convention, an occupying force cannot bring its population into occupied territory, a law which makes Israeli settlements illegal. Settlers are problematic because their presence in land claimed by Palestinians makes it hard to come to a peace accord.
Trump though, appears much less concerned about settlements and the two-state solution. In a joint press conference with Netanyahu he said that he was happy with the solution that both parties liked. Though he did tell Netanyahu that he would like it if he held back on settlements.
On February 6th, the Knesset adopted a law which retroactively legalised wildcat settlements built in defiance of Israeli law. Netanyahu has urged America to recognise Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Now his right-wing coalition members, are pushing for the annexation of parts of the West Bank.
Settlers only make up 4% of the Israeli population and 13% of the West Bank population, but their numbers are growing rapidly and exert disproportionate political power. In 2015 there were 385,900 settlers in the West Bank, and with new settlement blocs being authorised by the government (3000 housing units have already been approved this year), this number is likely to rise to half a million very soon.
The idea of settling the Promised Land has always been at the heart of the Zionist project. But the modern settler movement, mixing nationalism with messianic fervour, stems from Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, when it defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in quick succession. The prize was the capture of the biblical heartland, including the Old City of Jerusalem and places such as Hebron, Bethlehem, and Nablus. The West Bank is frequently referred to by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria.
The 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel was the catalyst for the radicalisation of the Jewish far-right. It stipulated that Israel would return the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, and grant autonomy to Palestinians in the occupied territories. Settlers were forcefully evacuated from the region and their homes bulldozed. This was not without heavy resistance from the settlers and far-right activists. Some followers of the ultranationalist zealot, Rabbi Meir Kahane, barricaded themselves in a basement laden with explosives at Yamit in 1982 and threatened to blow themselves up. Kahane himself had to be flown in in order to convince his disciples to stand down.
The failure of the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, the violent eruption of a second Palestinian intifada, the evacuation of settlers in the Gaza Strip in 2005 and the election of Hamas (an Islamist party responsible for countless suicide bombings) reinforced the belief of many Israelis that peace with Palestinians was beyond reach. It was a view that settlers were only too happy to promote, and they redoubled their effort to implant themselves in the West Bank to prevent a future Israeli government from giving it away.
Today, the Israeli government directly and indirectly sponsors settlements, subsidises living costs, provides them with good infrastructure to get them into mainland Israel and protects them from attack by Palestinian militants.
Not all settlers are driven by ideology. Many, if not most, are attracted by the better quality of life and suburban lifestyle (especially those on the outskirts of Jerusalem and near the crowded coastal plain), many opt for the settlement life to raise families.
There are of course still those who are ideologically motivated. Far-right, ultranationalist religious zealots tend to congregate in historically important places like Hebron or Nablus and are protected at all times by the IDF. Because of this position of superiority they are able to antagonise their Palestinian neighbours without repercussions. The hostilities between Palestinians and these settlers are violent, and both sides are guilty of many a murder, though all too often only the Palestinians will see the inside of jail cell.
Though a Trump presidency may solve political issues for Netanyahu as he will be able to move more freely, the issue of the fundamental issue of the settlements will remain. Even if he manages to annex parts of the West Bank, Palestinians still remain. Soon, their population will overshoot the Jewish one. And then what? This year he may have gotten the best present ever, but what about next year? And in 10 years time?