25 Years On: What Did Israeli Settlers Learn From the First Palestinian Intifada?

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When the first intifada broke out, in 1987, peace as the settlers in the territories knew it died. Up until then, the settlers had marketed themselves as an important security force, as the spiritual heirs to the Zionist pioneers who came to this land in the Second Aliyah ‏(wave of immigration to Palestine, between 1904 and 1914‏). The settlers claimed that Israel’s future could be secured with the power of the plowshare. When they spoke about genuine good-neighbor relations with the Palestinians, they were not talking like the leftists who sat in the cafes of Tel Aviv. They spoke about shopping in Palestinian markets and employing Palestinian workers. What they offered was an alternative to the model offered by the Israeli left: Instead of an independent state, argued the settlers, the Palestinians would be given autonomy, and their economy would be dependent on the pockets of rich Israelis.

However, the outbreak of the intifada left those ideas in the garbage bin of history. It suddenly became clear that the Palestinians really did want an independent state of their own. The boiling cauldron of the West Bank, whose contents the Shin Bet security service and Israel’s Civil Administration tried to stir but to keep from boiling over, was overflowing, and the settlers’ plan collapsed.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision on Elon Moreh, a settlement not far from Nablus ‏(which had to be moved from its original location after the court ruled that there could not be any Israeli construction on land privately owned by Palestinians‏), the defense establishment was very happy to go along with the settlers’ claim that their communities provided a vital “security belt” − one that prevented the possibility, on the one hand, of an invasion by the Jordanian army from the east and, on the other, the slicing in two of Israel at its narrowest point, near Kfar Sava, which would precede all Israelis being tossed into the Mediterranean without a life-jacket. Thousands of acres of Palestinian land were seized for “military” purposes, and ancient wheat fields were replaced by houses with tiled roofs and prefabricated cube-shaped structures serving as public buildings.

What pulled the carpet out from under the settlers’ feet was not the violence in the West Bank. Violent incidents had occurred before, their climaxes being the murder of six yeshiva students in Hebron in 1980 and the firebombing of the car of the Moses family ‏(with two fatalities‏) near the Palestinian village of Habla in April 1987.

The Palestinian popular uprising changed the strategic situation in the West Bank for other reasons. First of all, Israeli troops were moved en masse into the northern West Bank to put down the uprising, and regional brigades of the Israel Defense Forces were created both there and in the Gaza Strip. The number of soldiers, most of them reservists, stationed beyond the country’s pre-1967 borders was multiplied a hundredfold. It was at this point that Israelis began asking themselves, “What the hell are we doing here in the first place?”

Soldiers also began to ask themselves what the justification was for an Israeli military presence all over the West Bank and Gaza. They began to ask themselves what the logic was in securing a single, long highway simply in order to protect the residents of a single settlement from stone-throwers. Or why they should escort children who traveled by bus each morning from their homes in isolated settlements to the central part of Israel.

For its part, the Israeli public, still suffering from the trauma of the failed attempt to seize control of Lebanon for security reasons, began to doubt the validity of the settlers’ claim that their presence was strategically important to the State of Israel. They began to ask themselves if stationing an entire battalion for the protection of a settlement promoted or threatened national security interests?

An additional factor was the behavior of the settlers themselves. Their leaders launched an aggressive campaign against the IDF, claiming that the army was not providing them with adequate protection. On several occasions, the settlers traveled to Jerusalem for the purpose of demonstrating at Zion Square. They ostensibly triumphed but the victory was a Pyrrhic one: that is, they managed to convince the army, but lost the support of the greater society. They created an image of themselves as a bunch of spoiled brats who were demanding special privileges. They conducted a campaign against the rules of engagement, which prohibited a shoot-to-kill policy vis-a-vis Palestinian rock-throwers.

In an act of an ostensibly provocative nature, in 1988, Pinchas Wallerstein, who was at the time head of the Binyamin Regional Council, traveled to the West Bank settlement of Ofra. After rocks were thrown at his car in the Palestinian town of Beitin, he emerged from his vehicle and shot and killed a young Palestinian boy. Wallerstein was eventually tried for manslaughter, but agreed to a plea bargain, whereby he acknowledged “causing death through negligence” − and was handed a four-month suspended sentence.

Low casualties

In their 1990 book “Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising − Israel’s Third Front,” the late Haaretz military columnist Ze’ev Schiff, and the Arab affairs commentator of TV Channel 2, Ehud Yaari, aptly described the reality of the period. During the months of the uprising, the number of casualties among the settlers, wrote Schiff and Yaari, was surprisingly low given both the massive number of stones thrown and the increase in the number of Molotov cocktails.

In the history of the Jewish pioneering settlements of pre-state Israel and in the history of the State of Israel, noted the authors, there had never been a group calling itself a pioneering Zionist movement that had so loudly demanded “100-percent security” − even though its members had knowingly settled in places where threats to personal security were blatant. Although Jewish frontier communities had always had to cope with Arab terror, Schiff and Yaari pointed out, the IDF had never been attacked by Jewish settlers for failing to provide adequate protection, nor had soldiers ever been so thoroughly humiliated as they were by some settlers in the territories.

Finally, the first intifada had a major impact on the idea of peaceful Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. Prior to that popular uprising, Jews and Palestinians had managed to live side by side in peace. The presence of Jewish shoppers in the marketplace of Khan Yunis was not simply an orientalist cliche − it was a day-to-day reality for the Jewish settlers of the Gaza Strip. After 1987, however, this idyll of peaceful coexistence came to an end. The family albums containing photos from weddings in the nearby Palestinian village were placed in the attics of Jewish settlers for permanent storage.

It became obvious that, with this level of violence, peaceful coexistence was impossible, and the conclusion that Israelis came to was that peace could only be achieved by a total severing of ties between Israel and the Palestinians. In order to achieve an absolute separation of Israel from the Palestinians, a number of settlements would need to be abandoned. The Oslo Accords, intended to signal the end of the popular, secular, national Palestinian struggle, turned out to be a diplomatic, political and ideological fiasco for all right-wing settlers. How they coped with the Oslo Accords − well, that’s another story altogether.

The first intifada.Credit: AP
Youths throwing stones in the Gaza Strip, 1987. From that point on, the idyll of peaceful coexistence came to an end.Credit: Alex Levac

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