Israel's Only Real State Secret. No, It's Not an Atom Bomb.

The top state secret is conspicuous in its absence; it's camouflaged, hidden in plain sight. But no one knows it, and no one can.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

In a country where everyone knows everything, there is only one genuine state secret. And it has nothing to do with nuclear weapons.

This week, headlines hinted obliquely at it, but several steps removed. There were finely detailed acres of newsprint devoted to the challenges of apocalyptic security concerns and to dangerous poverty in Israel, as well as the austerity measures which may make both more difficult to endure. Sure enough, the only state secret that remains securely kept was conspicuous in its absence.

So here it is: No one knows how much money is poured into the settlements. No one.

No one ever has.

No one can know, because the money is hidden in plain sight, camouflaged and subsumed in the budgets of every conceivable ministry, as well as the unfathomable, undifferentiated, bottomless slush budget of the Prime Minister's Office.

A report this week by Army Radio showed that cabinet ministers themselves do not know how much of their own budgets will go toward subsidizing, fostering, enlarging, protecting, and retroactively legalizing settlements, as well as finding fresh financial inducements to entice thousands of new residents into homes beyond the 1967 Green Line border.

And even then, the report noted, key Knesset committees and government agencies will work behind the scenes to assure that additional funding is funneled, out of sight and out of oversight, to the settlements and illegal outposts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Which points to another hidden element of the settlement enterprise: Poverty in Israel is good for the settlements, and great for the occupation.

It always has been.

When settlement construction began in earnest in the early 1980s, Likud governments had already begun to dismantle the social welfare safety nets that had underpinned Israel's economy and society since its founding in 1948.

As privatization gathered steam, many in Israel's outlying towns and hardscrabble urban neighborhoods were left behind to drown in an economy plagued by inflation and the closure of long-established local industries and workplaces.

Instead of working to strengthen the hard-hit areas where they enjoyed strong voter support, Likud governments held out the prospect of moving to well-financed, tax-favored, spanking new Emerald City suburbs over the fast-receding border.

As irresistibly affordable housing drew thousands of buyers, drawn also by surplus funds for schools and transportation, the occupation sprawled over swath after swath of the territories. Army bases sprung up in every direction to protect the settlers - bases which would often, in time, become new settlements, authorized or not.

Through it all, though settlement leaders were fired by ideology, what they were selling was something entirely different: The good life.

And the price was right.

Especially when no one in Israel could be expected to know what the real cost to the nation would be. The settlements, set up specifically to undermine peace moves, also took an indirect economic toll on Israeli trade and industry, forced to fight a rising current of international isolation, a pariah effect, and the loss of the good will that peace progress had inspired.

But even the direct costs, the mountains of funds Israel has injected into the settlements, have eluded full examination.

As then-finance minister Yuval Steinitz indicated last year, there is always more to funding settlements than meets the public eye.

"We've doubled the budget for Judea and Samaria, Steinitz, referring to the West Bank, told a regional settler-oriented radio station. We did this in a low-profile manner, because we didn't want parties either in Israel or abroad to thwart the move."

I suppose we should be grateful when people are open about deception.

Years ago, when I was a new recruit in the Israeli army, my platoon was sent to guard one of the first settlements, the recently established Beit El.

Built largely on privately-owned Palestinian land, which the government had "temporarily" seized for military use, the settlement consisted of a few caravan homes, and a beautifully built yeshiva structure of Jerusalem stone the color of cream.

I remember one of the yeshiva students noting that the government had paid for the building. Which ministry had provided the funding, I asked him. "The Ministry of Religion Affairs? Education?"

He shook his head. "Agriculture."

"What, exactly, do you grow here?" I asked.

There was a trace of a smile. "Rocks."

They are still growing rocks. They grow the rocks that the Hilltop Youth, the shock troops of the settlement movement, throw at Palestinians. They grow the rocks that young Palestinians throw at Jews.

I should have seen it coming, all those years ago. The settlers don't pay for the rocks. But there's a price for what they do with them. We're not allowed to know what it is, but one way or another, it's we who will get the bill.

The separation fence as it passes through Qalqilyah. Credit: Alex Levac

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