Settlement and Eviction in Gaza

by H. Scott Prosterman

Moving is always stressful. Eviction is even more stressful. In Michael Moore's film, "Roger & Me," one of the most heartbreaking scenes (of many) is when the sheriff comes to evict a family on a gray, damp Christmas Eve. The children are screaming and crying, the parents are yelling at the deputy who is saying, "I come to put you out." His cavalier tone of voice is less than human, revealing that he's just glad he's employed in the town where GM had suddenly removed 35,000 jobs from the Flint economy. Eviction is ugly, mean and sad. Eviction is a grave tragedy that traumatizes everyone involved, especially children.

The eviction of settlers from the Gaza strip this week calls all of this to mind. In no uncertain terms, the settlers are victims. Regardless of where one stands on the rights of the Palestinians to re-inhabit their land, Israeli settlers who bought into the ideology and agenda of the Israeli right, feel betrayed by their leaders. No one wishes to be forced out of their homes. The younger generations have never known any home but the one they're leaving. The older generations feel betrayed by political leaders who commanded them to settle the Arab lands for over 35 years, and now are ordering them out. Everyone feels a sense of tragedy and betrayal. They are angry at their government and leaders.

More to the point, they're angry at the Arabs who want to reclaim their land. Departing settlers are taking great care to destroy anything of function or value that can't be hauled out. The army is going them one better by staying to raze all structures as the final step of the pull out. Is this really necessary?

Why would they rather destroy their homes than allow another family to enjoy it, regardless of that person's ethnicity or religion? One young mother said, "I'd rather destroy this house than let Arabs live in it."

Let us remember that a brazen and ugly form of racism has driven the settlement movement. The ideology of settlers was more than about reclaiming the land of Abraham; it was about isolation, seclusion and exclusion.

Israeli governments, starting with Menachem Begin, began enticing Jews to settle in the occupied areas in 1977. Jews from all over the world were enticed to settle the biblical lands (e.g. occupied areas) with low-cost housing (3 years free in some areas), tax incentives, and large government subsidies. The governments of Begin, Benjamin Natanyahu and Ariel Sharon won their elections by appealing to the exclusionary and brazenly racist sentiments of the settlers. They promoted the settlements as a political solution and ideological fix. A disproportionate amount of security and financial resources has gone to maintaining Jewish settlements in the occupied areas since the mid-1970's. This share has grown disproportionately and is now untenable.

Sharon acknowledged this in his apologetic address to the settlers. Ironically, he noted the same arguments that he violently resisted for so long: that Israel does not have the resources to administer to a fast-growing and hostile Palestinian population AND maintain the character of the Jewish state. Palestinian population growth illustrates that Israel is on track for losing its Jewish character, if it wishes to maintain the full-scale occupation. The choice is either to remain a Jewish state or risk losing its very identity in its efforts to maintain the occupation.

Jews had always lived in the Arab areas in small numbers since the early Zionists settled in the late 19th Century. Begin made it a cornerstone of his government to create "facts on the ground" to solidify Israel's claim and presence in the West Bank and Gaza. Many Israelis eagerly moved to the settlements to take advantage of the financial incentives and to stake their ideological claim to the land of Abraham.

We forget that Abraham is everyone's prophet. Abraham is the 1st prophet in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Ariel Sharon has always been an enigma. The author of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in Lebanon in 1982, the architect and general of the invasion of Lebanon, and the man whose militarized presence at the Dome of the Rock set off the latest wave of Intifada in 2000, issued the evacuation orders. First he shepherded the settlers in; now he's kicking them out. And the settlers feel betrayed.

What accounts for Sharon's change of heart and politics? Is he now a statesman, with sudden recognition of Israel's place in the grand scheme of nations? Or is this, somehow, a politically expedient move?

Many people have argued that maintaining the occupation weakens Israel; that Israel does not have the resources to maintain a country and an inciteful presence in nearby occupied lands. The occupation was a huge drain of military and financial resources.

In the aftermath of the 1967 War, there were no plans for a long-term occupation. Abba Eban, the Israeli president at the time, argued that these lands were bargaining chips to be given back in return for security assurances. Eban argued against the occupation to the end of his life, something which diminished his political stature to his early followers. In the end he was written off as a gadfly. Excuse me, but this is one of Israel's founding fathers, and I believe he had it right from the beginning.

As the occupation increased in size, scope and ideological importance to the Israeli Right, Israel's stature among nations fell sharply. Amidst the security excesses committed against Arabs by settlers and Israeli troops, most people and countries of the world became critical of the occupation. It has always been illegal for an occupying country to place civilians in occupied land.

Though some settlers were advised that they may have to leave someday, most never considered the possibility. They had the full support of their government, and were given incentives to move there. They were enticed by ideology and cheap rent. Where else could you get a great deal on housing and farmland, and get a sense of doing "G-d's work" at the same time? As a "fact on the ground," new settlers were anointed with a sense of self-righteousness. This implied a greater sense of entitlement than was available to the Arabs who had been evicted, or the neighboring Arabs who had their water source pirated.

"G-d gave this land to Abraham," I often heard when I traveled through the West Bank; "it is ours now." I also often heard some sickening and profanely racist assessments of their Arab neighbors and Arabs in general. Just as southern American politicians freely played the race card in their campaigns through the early 1970's (sorry to say it really never left us), Israeli politicians curried favor with settlers by demonizing and dehumanizing Arabs in their stump speeches.

With the exception of the truly observant Jews who moved to the West Bank to be closer to the Tomb of Abraham, the Israeli settlement movement was largely built on racism. It was built on a sense of entitlement and exclusionary politics.

It is ironic that one of the very architects and cornerstones of that settlement movement came to recognize its untenable nature as Prime Minister. This is a painful time for Israel and its supporters. Moving and eviction is always painful, stressful and exhausting.

For 38 years, the Israeli government encouraged and enticed people to move to the West Bank and Gaza. Ultimately, it was recognized as counter-productive to Israel's long-term interests.

We must consider that the man who represented the face of an expanding Greater Israel also has the statesmanlike vision to say, "Enough! This isn't working anymore."

In the end, Israel will be stronger with less territory to defend. It will be more cohesive without the great expanses of land between settlements where people must be defended. And it will have greater moral authority for having the courage to recognize that the 38 years of expanding the occupation had to end.

Israel still stakes a claim to all of Jerusalem and administers settlements in areas of the West Bank, including the Tomb of Abraham in the West Bank city Hebron. But in Gaza, it is the beginning of the end.

So, regardless of whether they were drawn to the settlements by political ideology, religious commitment or cheap rent, the former settlers of Gaza are pained by their evictions and sense of betrayal by their government's leader. Just as Palestinians continue to pay for the sins of Hitler, Israeli settlers are now paying for the sins of Begin, Netanyahu and Sharon. The difference is that Hitler was the personification of evil on this earth; whereas the Israeli politicians were driven by a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness brought on by Hitler's crimes. The difference is huge.

Palestinians did not cause the Holocaust, but their leaders have often stated their regret of paying for Hitler's sins with their blood and land.

Israel, as a Jewish state has a right to exist. Palestinian people have a right to their land. The two are not mutually exclusive.