Why Israel Will Never Be Able to Withdraw From the West Bank

In 2005, the state managed to evacuate 9,000 settlers from Gaza. In 2015, it struggled to demolish two empty settlement buildings in Beit El – highlighting how the settlers have seized control of more than just land.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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A settler confronts a Border Policeman during the demolition of the Dreinoff buildings in Beit El, July 29, 2015.
A settler confronts a Border Policeman during the demolition of the Dreinoff buildings in Beit El, July 29, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Ten years ago, Israel unilaterally pulled out of the Gaza Strip. In one of the most dramatic, toughest chapters in its short history, the state evacuated nearly 9,000 Israeli settlers. The brainchild of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the disengagement nearly tore the country apart, cost a fortune, spurred a nationwide protest movement, and created deep, long-lasting scars – some of which have not healed to this day. But it happened. Ultimately, Israel managed to do what many thought impossible: it put an end to 38 years of occupation in Gaza, and removed thousands of settlers from their homes.

On Wednesday, Israel managed to demolish two illegal, empty, half-built structures in the West Bank. After years of legal wrangling, that is, and following days of political tumult and violent riots, with coalition members openly calling for the demolition of the High Court.

After a week of violent clashes between Israel Defense Forces soldiers and settlers in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, the IDF demolished the so-called “Dreinoff buildings” – two half-complete, illegally constructed apartment buildings that stood empty on private Palestinian land, following a High Court of Justice ruling that ordered the state to demolish them.

The extended, years-long saga that surrounded the demolition of these very ugly, half-built structures serves as yet another example of how much the two-state solution has become an unrealistic pipe dream, completely out of touch with the one-state reality on the ground.

‘Demolish the High Court’

The story of Beit El seems pretty straightforward at first: Following a legal saga that lasted years, Israel’s courts acknowledged that the 24-unit buildings, built by Israeli contractor Meir Dreinoff, were constructed illegally, on private land seized from a Palestinian named Abdul Rahman Qasim. The state objected, with the Civil Administration (the military body that essentially governs the West Bank) trying to give the structures a retroactive construction permit. But the High Court stood its ground and the buildings were razed.

Before the actual bulldozers moved in, however, we witnessed yet again the usual insurrection that takes place every time the state tries to evict a settlement or outpost in the West Bank: Settlers violently clashed with police officers, burned tires, threw rocks at policemen, and attempted to barricade themselves inside the buildings. Right-wing MKs renewed their attacks on the High Court, with MK Moti Yogev (Habayit Hayehudi) even going so far as to say “it is the High Court that should be demolished with a D-9 tractor.” Simultaneously, about 200 settlers reoccupied the northern West Bank settlement of Sa-Nur, evacuated in 2005 and currently under Palestinian control (they were removed on Thursday morning).

Education Minister Naftali Bennett delivered a rousing speech to settlers on a roof in Beit El. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also said he opposed the demolition. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon – who bears responsibility for carrying out the demolition – became the favored punching bag for fellow ministers and right-wing MKs (ironically, he was derided as something of a leftist for the first time in his life – even though he has spent the last year desperately trying to get the buildings approved).

The videos streaming in from Beit El were reminiscent of the violent confrontations that surrounded Israel’s demolition of nine illegally constructed homes at the Amona outpost in the winter of 2006. To many, they also evoked painful memories of the mass Gaza evacuation.

And yet the years-long saga that preceded the demolition of these Beit El buildings shows why, unlike Gaza, Israel will likely never be able to evacuate the vast majority of settlements from the West Bank.

First of all, the logistics make it impossible. The West Bank is not Gaza. Whereas Sharon’s disengagement dismantled a few relatively small, remote settlements in the southern Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif, the West Bank is home to nearly 500,000 Israelis, many of whom live just a short drive from Jerusalem. Even if, in the unlikely event of a peace accord, Israel had to evict only a small proportion of those half million, the costs would be enormous (Sharon’s disengagement cost the state roughly $3 billion).

Perhaps more important than the logistical nightmare, there’s the fact that Israel’s political discourse has changed in the 10 years since Sharon’s move. Whereas Sharon was a strong prime minister who could largely control the members of his coalition – even those who resisted his plans – Netanyahu is a weak, panicky prime minister who governs a shaky and disparate right-wing coalition and is constantly pressured and blackmailed by extremist members of his own Likud party. Even a stronger leader would find it immensely difficult to unite the fractured political map of Israel today.

Then there are the deep changes undergone in Israel’s political discourse, several of which were displayed by the Dreinoff affair: First, there’s the face off. As is evident from the events surrounding the Dreinoff buildings and this week’s (failed) reoccupation of Sa-Nur, the right-wing is even less willing to cede anything in its fight for dominance than it was 10 years ago. The Dreinoff homes bore no religious significance. They had no strategic value. They were built without permits, for profit and profit alone, in a manner so illegal that even the State of Israel – which turns a blind eye to legal abuses in the West Bank on a daily basis – acknowledged their illegality.

Yet still the right-wing was willing to go to war over them. The logic is simple: If you go all out on something as insignificant as two empty, half-built buildings, you put the fear of God into anyone who might want to try something more substantial. This hard line allows for very little compromise: if a Jewish hand has touched it and claimed it as theirs, it stays.

Anyone who imagines that Israel might some day be able to rein in this line of thinking and evict thousands of settlers is delusional. As long as two empty buildings within Beit El are enough to inspire revolt, no one is coming for Beit El itself.

Then there’s the trade-off. Right-wing politicians, even those who may agree that the Dreinoff buildings had to be demolished or simply respect the authority of the High Court, have no significant power over the extremist factions that have taken over Israeli politics. And the left is worse: Israel’s left-wing leans more and more to the right these days, convinced this is the only way to get back into power. Many left-wing MKs are wary of appearing too harsh toward settlers, ensuring that right-wing radicalism will continue undisturbed.

Finally, there’s the payoff. Under pressure after the events in Beit El, Netanyahu approved the construction of 300 new housing units in Beit El, and 504 new housing units in East Jerusalem. The right-wing has traded two empty buildings for 800 new homes – and by the time this is over, it’ll get much more. Indeed, the contractor Dreinoff himself, spurred by the week’s events, has already promised to build the eponymous buildings again. The message this sends to settlers, and citizens in general, is as clear as it is dangerous: violence works, and breaking the law pays off.

Even in its small “victory” over the settlers, Israel fetched up on the losing side.

This week’s events are a bite-sized preview of what would happen if the two-state solution was ever implemented and Israel was forced to evict thousands of settlers. Which is the reason why it will probably never be implemented. Israel does not have the will or capacity. Peace – or the two-state version of peace, at least – remains an unrealistic fantasy.

Like it or not, the settlements – and with them, the occupation of the West Bank – are here to stay.



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