The issue of settlement has been at the center of the political Zionist movement since its inception. The settlers have played a major role in shaping the political fabric of Israel. Since “the conquest of the land” has been intrinsic to political Zionism, the settlers engaged in that process enjoy a particular leverage in relation to their fellow Zionists. The Zionist “minimalists’ have historically stressed the consolidation of a Jewish state on the territory under their control while the “maximalists” have called for a Greater Israel based on the maximum extent of the ancient Hebrew kingdoms. The relations between these minimalist and maximalist Zionist camps have not always been amicable, but the differences have more often been tactical than strategic. This political dynamic lends a veneer of contention as the process of settlement inexorably proceeds.

The settlement movement in the territories occupied in 1967 expresses this maximalist sentiment. It has displayed enormous influence over mainstream Israeli politics, and has served as a spawning ground for even more extremist elements. The Gush Emunim movement may today only control a minority of the settlements in the occupied territories, yet it has already been superceded on the right by the Tehiya (Renaissance) Party and the Kach (Thus) of Meir Kahane. A Zionist paramilitary group calling itself the “Sons of Zion” claimed credit for the attempted assassination of three Palestinian mayors. While the identities of these groups remain somewhat vague, and their material sources and friends are yet to be established, their ideological roots are evident.

During the earlier years of settlement in the 1967 occupied territories, the security argument was the most prevalent. The validity of this justification was seriously undermined during the 1973 war, when Israel had to use valuable time and manpower to evacuate the settlements on the Golan Heights. It is almost certain that the security argument for settlement would be heard less often were it not for the credibility it has sustained in the United States.

The argument that Israel has historical rights on the West Bank cuts across party lines and across the religious/secular division in Israel. While the Labor government concentrated West Bank settlement in the Jordan Valley and the eastern slope of the highlands, they also facilitated the construction of Kiryat Arba near Hebron.

The leaders of Gush Emunim have not forgotten the material and moral aid they have received from Yigal Allon, then deputy prime minister, when they settled in Hebron, nor the aid given to them by the chairman of the Labor Party, Shimon Peres, while he was the minister of defense in Rabin’s government; there would have been no Ofra, the first settlement in Samaria, without his help. Gush Emunim now misses those days. It would like to see Labor in power again and Herut in opposition. The veterans of Gush Emunim think that this is the best political formula for their success in achieving their settlement aims. [1]

The historical rights argument is premised upon the right of modern Zionists to establish a presence anywhere in “Eretz Israel.” Begin’s Herut Party has never explicitly abandoned claim to the East Bank of the Jordan. Since the Hebrew Kingdoms are historically significant for religious reasons which dwarf their limited geographic and temporal extent, modern claims intrinsically have had a religious character to them.

The admixture of religion (especially with an element of divine ordination) and nationalism often proves volatile and oppressive. The Gush Emunim emerged from the National Religious Party’s Beni Akiva youth movement and yeshivot hesder. These “arrangement yeshivas” are religious seminaries the students of which also do army service. [2] Perhaps the single most influential person inspiring the Gush Emunim worldview is Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook:

The politics of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook are consistent, extremist, uncompromising and concentrated on a single issue: The right of the Jewish people to sovereignty over every foot of the Land of Israel. Absolute sovereignty, with no imposed limitations. “From a perspective of national sovereignty,” he says, “the country belongs to us.” He defines himself as an extreme maximalist. He did not join the “Movement for the Entire Land of Israel” because in his judgment, Transjordan, the Golan, the Bashan [the Jebel Druze region in Syria], are all part of the Land of Israel…. In a public statement he defined the right as follows: “The entire country is ours — there is no Arab land here, only Jewish lands, the eternal lands of our forefathers — and that land, in its original Biblical borders, belongs to the sovereignty of the Jewish people.” [3]

The conquests of the 1967 war were to Rabbi Kook a sign that God was fulfilling his ancient promises to the Jewish people. [4]

Ever since 1967 Israel has been confronted with the question of what to do with the occupied territories and the Palestinians who live in them. Holding onto the territories with their large Palestinian population implied an assimilation of Palestinians which would dilute the Zionist goal of a Jewish state. Menachem Begin’s autonomy plan is only the latest in a series of holding actions intended to maintain Israeli control until a means can be found to resolve the paradox.

To the Gush Emunim, the Palestinians are merely modern manifestations of the Canaanites and Amalekites. Against the Amalekites there was a command of revenge to kill every man, woman and child. The Canaanites were given three options: to stay under Israel’s terms, to leave, or to make war. A Gush Emunim publication applies these to the Palestinians.

One way out given to the Canaanites was to accept Israel’s terms. No autonomy but then no intolerance either…. The second method was to leave. This idea in itself is not new to Zionism. Israel Zangwill suggested it in 1920, the British put it forward in the Peel Report of 1937 as did Avraham Sharon and Avraham Stern in the 1940s. Official Zionists opposed the plan due to moral hesitations (not a Jewish morality but one influenced by liberal emancipation) and in continuation of their naive belief that the Arabs will agree to coexistence if we succeed in convincing them that Zionism is beneficial for them. If the two foregoing are not acceptable — let it be as it may. There is no fourth solution of “autonomy” in our sovereign area. [5]

Elsewhere this article advocates the creation of economic distress in the West Bank and Gaza to bring about large scale immigration, expulsion being permissible only in time of warfare. Similar thoughts were voiced less pretentiously by the Gush Emunim settlers in Ofra to the Jerusalem Post. Aharon Halamish, head of security, has a simple, if cynical, plan: “We simply don’t give them jobs. If they didn’t have work here, they wouldn’t prosper and wouldn’t want to stay. We could even pay them to leave.” [6]

What is distinctive about the Gush Emunim ideology is their intention not merely to colonize the occupied territories through building in areas where the Palestinian population is thinnest, but to confront and supplant the Palestinians. Yosef Goell, summarizing the views of Benny Katzover, a leading Gush Emunim activist, makes this clear:

It is not the specific site of Jabal Kabir or of Rujayb that is important; the proximity to Nablus-Shechem is the point. It is essential and urgent to establish as widespread a Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria as possible; and the closer this presence is to the large concentrations of Arab population in these territories, the better. [7]

This fanatical expansionism of the Gush Emunim would be of limited concern were it restricted to an isolated splinter group. Gush Emunim, despite their small numbers, are not isolated. Their ideas enjoy currency far beyond their membership and they have friends in high places. The extremism of Gen. Ariel Sharon, the minister of agriculture and chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Settlement, is matched by that of Aharon Davidi, former commanding officer of the paratroopers and lecturer in geography at Tel Aviv University. And the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren, in a speech in Kiryat Arba, went so far as to “express his grief that the Arabs of Hebron did not flee towards the Jordan River.” [8]

The most tangible evidence of high-level political support for the Gush Emunim philosophy is to be found in the pattern of existing settlements. The Labor Government concentrated settlements in the Jordan Valley and on the eastern side of the West Bank highlands. The objectives of these belts are to sever the West Bank Palestinians from East Jordan and to encircle them by creating a cordon on the eastern side. Settlement blocs surrounding Jerusalem are intended to prevent expansion of the Palestinian population of Jerusalem and to ghettoize them psychologically.

Since May 1977 the Likud government, with its more explicit intention of colonizing the occupied territories, has proceeded to build settlements along the length of the western highlands of the West Bank. An additional aspect of the scheme has been the construction of a series of roads on the West Bank which compartmentalize the Palestinian villages and towns. They are comparable, on a grander scale, to the razing and reconstruction carried out in Gaza after 1967.

The most flagrant support for the plan to penetrate the areas of heavy Palestinian population came in October 1978 when the World Zionist Organization’s Department for Rural Settlement published its “Master Plan for the Development of Settlement in Judea and Samaria, 1979-1983,” [9] which refers to Palestinians as the “minorities,” despite the fact that Palestinians are the overwhelming majority of the population of the West Bank. The first principle guiding the “master plan” reads: “Settlement throughout the entire Land of Israel is for security and by right. A strip of settlements at strategic sites enhances both internal and external security alike, as well as making concrete and realizing our right to Eretz Israel.” It betrays the efforts of the Israeli government to characterize the resistance of the Palestinians as an external phenomenon, and acknowledges that counterinsurgency and repression are among the objectives of the settlements.

The Gush Emunim is forthright in its desire to dispossess the Palestinians; the government’s actions belie any pretension to protect Palestinian land rights. To date close to one third of the land on the West Bank has come under Israeli control. [10] A portion was confiscated on security grounds, often dubious. Other lands were taken over on the grounds that they were state lands rather than privately held Palestinian property. This has been effected through a manipulation of the system of land tenure existing prior to 1967.

Thus the state of Israel itself is carrying out an extensive and multifaceted takeover of West Bank lands which differs from that urged by the Gush Emunim less in its substance than in its avoidance — for the time being — of flagrant confrontation. In November 1979 the Ministerial Committee on Settlement passed a settlement budget of 150 billion shekels, nearly half the entire non-military budget. [11] Despite this massive investment and settlement campaign, the government has fallen far short of the projections of the “master plan.” It is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit willing settlers, even with the various subsidies and benefits proffered.

The most disturbing recent developments in the occupied territories are of a military nature. A key figure is Chief-of-Staff Rafael Eitan. With the resignation of Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, Menachem Begin assumed the defense portfolio (refusing to promote Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Tzipori) and effectively allowed increased policy formulation to pass on to his chief of staff. Eitan stirred up a great deal of controversy in reducing the sentences of three Israeli soldiers convicted of killing innocent Lebanese Arabs.

Eitan’s sympathy for the Gush Emunim has been overt, as has his desire to retain the West Bank and Gaza. Eitan considers each settlement a “confrontational settlement” and has restructured the reserve duty of settlers: they now are organized in a framework of “area defense,” serving in the occupied territories and often even in their own immediate vicinity of residence. The Ramallah area, for example, is policed primarily by settlers from Ofra, Beit Horon and Beit El.

Haaretz reports that:

A security source dealing with these matters claims that “they are the best soldiers for this task.” He says that the settlers have strong discipline and most important motivation. For them “a roadblock is a roadblock and a search is a search.” Security sources think that the Area Defense…cannot be called “a private army.” Security sources and the settlers deny the existence of a private army, but the given data shows that the settlers have the infrastructure, prepared by the army. There is no need for underground organization. When the governor of Ramallah demanded the arms back from the settlers from Ofra following their “police action” last year, the settlers simply refused. This proved that in critical times the settlers and not the army dictate their will. [12]

The chief of staff recently stated that “there was nothing new or particularly worrisome in having a private army, almost certainly Jewish, operating separately from his own.” [13] His words are echoed by another Rafael Eitan, the adviser to the prime minister on the “war against terror,” who urged

that every Israeli who enters the territories, and even the Old City of Jerusalem, should carry arms and know how to use them…. In my judgment more Israeli civilians must be allowed to carry weapons all the time. Some argue that such a state of affairs will be exploited for the worst purposes. My reply: Already hundreds of thousands of guns are in the hands of IDF personnel, the police and the Israeli civilian sectors. An addition of several thousand weapons more will not change matters good or bad in this respect. [14]

In stating that there was nothing new about a private army, Chief of Staff Eitan could have been speaking historically of the various Zionist paramilitary troops active during the 1940s. His remark, however, is most accurate in describing a contemporary phenomenon. This May the Jerusalem Post was told that “West Bank settlers are preparing to fight the Arab terrorists with or without the army’s help…. Settlement leaders have decided to form ‘regional security committees’ which will obtain arms, train settlers, and collect information on Arab riots, stone throwing and incitement…. Well-informed settler sources indicated they would act if the army should be curbed by political factors.” [15] Incidents of harassment and violence repeatedly inflicted on the residents of Hebron by Kiryat Arba settlers, and similar attacks on other Palestinian towns and villages, have been appropriately characterized as pogroms in some Israeli newspapers. [16] Settlers, in order to counteract such “hostile” media coverage, are even exploring the legalities of creating a private broadcasting station for the West Bank. [17]

All this holds great potential for undermining the Israeli military. The settlers, through their overt vigilante actions, have done much to raise the level of violence in the occupied territories. Through their demagogic rhetoric and their pogroms, the Gush Emunim in particular have helped to legitimize and spawn the underground organizations. Apparently there are at least two Zionist underground groups operating in the occupied territories: the “Sons of Zion” and another connected to Meir Kahane’s Kach party. Newsweek distinguishes between the two:

The membership of the Sons of Zion remains something of a mystery, though it appears to be small, highly professional, well-educated and native. Kahane’s Kach, on the other hand, is seen as a dumping ground for young thugs. Some of them never bother to learn Hebrew and they often return home after a few months of hell-raising on the West Bank. [18]

Also claiming responsibility for the attacks on the mayors of Nablus and Ramallah is a group calling itself “Terror Against Terror” (in Hebrew the acronym is TNT). Whether this group is identical to the “Sons of Zion” remains to be seen. In a Haaretz survey, 36.6 percent of the Israelis polled said they approved of the tactics of “Terror Against Terror.” [19] The majority of Israelis may not at this time openly condone such flagrantly illegal actions, but the magnitude of those who do is quite sufficient to sustain a great deal of unlawful activity. The underground will find a great deal of sympathy and support, especially among the settlers in the occupied territories.

Even more incredible than the attacks upon the mayors are the potential consequences of the plot to blow up the al-Aqsa mosque. (Over 120 kilograms of TNT and other explosives were discovered in an East Jerusalem yeshiva in mid-May, along with detailed plans drawn up by associates of Kahane for attacks against this and other Muslim holy places. The explosives had been stolen from the IDF, and two active duty soldiers were arrested in connection with the plot.) The intent of this scheme is not merely to destroy the mosque physically, but to trigger a major war which would expedite the expulsion of the bulk of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. Kahane and the Gush Emunim have been explicit in their advocacy of this. In the words of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Goren, “Not only Kiryat Arba but Hebron must be a Jewish city.” [20] Former military intelligence chief Gen. Aharon Yariv, in a speech at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, warned recently that some people already “hope to exploit a situation of war to expel 7-800,000 Arabs…. Things are being said to this effect, and the means are even being prepared.” [21]

Many of the leaders of Gush Emunim had a role in founding the Tehiya (Renaissance) Party, due to dissatisfaction with the Herut and National Religious Party positions on settlement. The mystical nationalism and rhetoric of Tehiya has led some Israeli journalists to compare it with European fascist movements. [22]

Throughout the history of the state of Israel, the right has often used illegal and extra-legal tactics to gain leverage over policy formation. They achieve this influence through their ability to manipulate the political and religious fundamentals of Zionist ideology. Within Zionism the only definitive answers to key questions (what are the final borders of Israel? who has more right to the land? who is a Jew?) have come from those relying upon religious formulas. Virtually all factions within the Zionist movement, in their effort to create the state of Israel, accepted and used — at least in a limited fashion — the historical and religious claims to the land. As a result, the maximalist position has an element of “truth” to it which the moderates are seldom prepared to deny or refute. The contradictions of settler colonialism are now catching up with Israel. Occupation and democracy (even for the settler population) do not mix. The requirements of defense and settlement are placing an enormous strain on an economy which has never been self-reliant. The inability to resolve the political contradictions latent in Zionism and the ensuing economic hardship are already evoking calls for greater authoritarianism. The editor-in-chief of Yediot Aharonot commented last September:

If we cannot obtain economic independence under a democratic regime, we will have to opt for a less democratic rule, provided it is strong enough and firm enough to assure our survival, because our existence is more important than the individual freedom of each one of us. [23]

MK Haim Druckman candidly remarked of late that the unity of Eretz Israel is more important than the democracy of do-gooders. [24]

A countervailing force to the maximalists has yet to coalesce in Israel. The Peace Now movement is neither ready to respond to the right with the extralegal tactics of the Gush Emunim nor is it capable of manipulating the historical imperatives of Zionism for its own ends. The Palestinians in the occupied territories must prepare themselves for another danger: that the Gush Emunim and its right-wing allies will, through illegal and fascistic methods, precipitate a conflict to cover the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories. An expulsion under such circumstances will likely enjoy the support of elements of Israeli society beyond the right, who will welcome this resolution of the last 13 years’ paradox.


[1] Yoseph Zuriel, Maariv, March 23, 1979. (This and subsequent translations from the Hebrew by Israel Shahak, unless otherwise specified.)
[2] Yosef Goell, Jerusalem Post, International Edition, April 13-19, 1980.
[3] David Shaham, Yediot Aharonot Supplement, April 13, 1979.
[4] Such extreme theistic nationalism is not universal to Orthodox Judaism. Yeshayahu Liebowitz, a specialist in Jewish law who holds chairs in biochemistry and philosophy at Hebrew University, explains that “Jews of every generation were willing to die for observance of the Torah, but not for settling in the land of Israel…. Gush Emunim is religious like the Israelites who danced around the golden calf were religious: they were idolaters. They worship the state and its border, the cheapest form of religion.” See Arthur Samuelson, “Israeli Expansionism,” Harper’s (February 1980).
[5] Israel Eldad, “The Realpolitik of Our Sages,” in Gush Emunim, Department of Information, Elon Moreh, Kedumin, Sak Naul, Jerusalem.
[6] Jerusalem Post, International Edition, June 8-14, 1980.
[7] Yosef Goell, op cit.
[8] Yehuda Litani, Haaretz, December 30, 1979.
[9] For a detailed account, see MERIP Reports 78 (June 1979).
[10] John Ruedy, Washington Star, October 29, 1978.
[11] Jerusalem Post, November 16, 1979. See also the Haaretz article, “Settlements: The Real Price Tag,” translated in Israleft 173, September 1, 1980.
[12] Yehuda Litani, Haaretz, May 16, 1980.
[13] Hirsh Goodman, Jerusalem Post Magazine, June 13, 1980.
[14] Baruch Meiri, Maariv, September 18, 1979.
[15] Joshua Brilliant, Jerusalem Post, May 11-17, 1980.
[16] E.g., Nahum Barnea in Davar, May 9, 1980. Among the best compilations of such events are the monthly occupied territories chronicles to be found in the journal Israel & Palestine published in Paris.
[17] Yehuda Litani, Haaretz, May 16, 1980.
[18] Newsweek, International Edition, June 16, 1980.
[19] New York Times, June 21, 1980.
[20] Jerusalem Post, International Edition, December 30, 1979-January 5, 1980.
[21] Haaretz, May 23, 1980.
[22] Cf. Jerusalem Post, International Edition, April 13-19, 1980; Amnon Kapeliouk, Le Monde Diplomatique (December 1979). The latter is translated in the Journal of Palestine Studies 9/3 (Spring 1980). Also cf. Haaretz, October 23, 1979 and Maariv, October 24, 1979.
[23] Yediot Aharonot, September 14, 1979. Quoted in Kapeliouk, Le Monde Diplomatique.
[24] Haaretz, June 13, 1980.

How to cite this article:

Don Will "Ideology and Strategy of the Settlements Movement," Middle East Report 92 (November/December 1980).

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