Settlements Do Not Serve Israel's Security Needs, Say Former Generals

New study cites former senior officers who say West Bank settlements are a burden on security services

Israeli soldiers keeping guard as Israeli children play outside the Beit Hadassah settlement in the West Bank city of Hebron, May 29, 2017.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Senior former Israeli army officers say settlements in the West Bank do not serve Israel’s security interests and are a burden, according to a new study by a left-leaning Israeli research institute.

The officers argued that the presence of Israeli civilians in the territories has become a strain because the Israel Defense Forces needs to allocate large numbers of troops for their protection, even during calm periods.

Commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the study was conducted by Molad – the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, and featured retired officers who held key posts at the army’s General Staff headquarters or Central Command.

Study author Avishay Ben Sasson-Gordis interviewed former Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky, who was head of the army’s Central Command when the IDF and Shin Bet security service were combating Palestinian terror during the second intifada; Maj. Gen. (res.) Gadi Shamni, also a former head of Central Command; and Maj. Gen. (res.) Noam Tibon, who commanded army forces in the West Bank.

Citing opinion polls in which over half the Israeli public believe the settlements augment state security, Sasson-Gordis wrote: “Even if the idea that the settlements contribute to security had some validity in the past, today it has none. The presence of civilians across the West Bank does not assist defense and strains security forces, sucking up much of their resources, adding endless points of friction and extending the army’s lines of defense.”

Sasson-Gordis quotes Tibon, who said at a recent conference in Tel Aviv that the number of soldiers the army needs to keep in the West Bank amounts to more than half, and occasionally two thirds, of its regular forces engaged in operational duties.

Based on conversations with Kaplinsky and other senior officers, Sasson-Gordis estimates that almost 80 percent of the forces located in the West Bank are involved in direct protection of the settlements, with the remainder scattered along the Green Line (the pre-1967 borders).

The erection of the West Bank separation barrier over the last decade helped stop terror attacks within Israel, but the barrier is incomplete – 40 percent is unbuilt – partly due to the opposition of settler leaders, who don’t want some settlements on the other side of the wall.

Former Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky, March 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

The army’s involvement in routine security tasks, as well as policing the civilian Palestinian population, comes at the expense of drilling and preparing for war, the study finds.

Sasson-Gordis says the security rationale for constructing the settlements was based on the 1967 Allon Plan, but this lost any relevance after the dangers of a conventional Jordanian-Iraqi military invasion (with armored and infantry units) subsided on the eastern front. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, while the Iraqi army was shattered by the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003.

The main threat remaining on the eastern front is from Iranian missiles, but territory held by Israel in the West Bank (and certainly not the settlements) does not constitute a response to this threat, the author notes.

The main operational problem the IDF has to contend with in the West Bank is the threat of terror attacks, writes Sasson-Gordis. He says that “every civilian settlement east of the Green Line becomes a soft spot. The settlements don’t help the IDF combat terror. The opposite is true. Their contribution to the military effort is clearly negative. They serve as static targets, close to Palestinian villages, easy to penetrate and to collect information on.”

Kaplinsky told the study “the perception that the settlements serve security is an anachronistic one, suitable for the prestate period before borders were defined; this was the conception of seizing territory. In the first decades of the state, we didn’t have the technologies we currently possess for achieving security. A country that at any given moment operates three satellites, has the 8200 SIGINT unit and many other intelligence units, makes the settling of one hill or another meaningless in terms of our defensive capabilities, for deterrence or for early warning advantages.”

The ex-deputy chief of staff added, “When we were in [south] Lebanon [between 1982 and 2000], we did so in order to give our communities some strategic depth. In order to keep Hezbollah away from the fence in Metula [on the northern Israeli border], we were stationed in Lebanon. But we only kept forces there that were essential for keeping Hezbollah away. We didn’t maintain forces for guarding Israeli civilians inside Lebanon, people traveling all over the place, having weddings at Beaufort [fortress] or going to pray at some tomb on the Litani River.”

Kaplinsky has generally avoided making controversial statements since leaving the army some 10 years ago, so his comments to Molad are rare.

However, Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen – who left active service two years ago, after serving as an army group commander – told Haaretz he disagreed with the study’s findings.

“Precisely because of the new characteristics of combating terror and guerrilla combatants from within a civilian population, there are new dimensions for the necessity of a defensive organization of settlements spread throughout the entire area,” said Hacohen.

He added that “without this extensive Jewish settlement, as currently deployed across Judea and Samaria, the IDF would find it difficult to remain in the area, and to fully and effectively carry out its tasks. The manpower gap required for operating in the area is made up by the settlers and their communities, who have a constant presence there,” said Hacohen.

Hacohen said the IDF routinely operates no more than 18 battalions in the West Bank – meaning fewer than 10,000 combatants. The movement of hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians on the West Bank’s roads helps Israel control the area, he added.

MK Erel Margalit (Zionist Union) backed the study’s findings. “The prime minister has been kidnapped by the settler lobby and is pursuing a policy that harms the security of every Israeli,” he said. “The Molad report on national security and the settlements destroys the bluff that Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] and [Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali] Bennett are selling us, and again reveals that under this government, messianic interests are trampling security interests. We have to gather inside three settlement blocs and vacate the outposts and settlements that hurt us – in Israel,” added Margalit.

The lawmaker also said he intends to demand that the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee be convened as soon as possible, to receive answers “in light of the study and its implications.”