Shaul Goldstein has been building West Bank settlements as a contractor and politician for 20 years. He plans to continue no matter what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas achieves in his bid for statehood.
“I saw his speech at the United Nations and it doesn’t change anything,” said Goldstein, mayor of the cluster of settlements south of Jerusalem known as Gush Etzion. “We live here and we’re not going away.”
Abbas, who appealed to the UN last week to create the world body’s 194th member state, cites Jewish settlement growth as the biggest reason he’s given up on peace talks with Israel. The West Bank’s settler population has tripled to more than 300,000 since the 1993 Oslo peace accords, while the number of Palestinians in the territory has grown to about 2.6 million from 1.5 million.
The settlers’ determination to keep expanding risks further isolating Israel at a time when the Arab Spring has raised tensions in the Middle East, said Shimon Shamir, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and Egypt and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University.
“When people in Arab countries look at the settlements, it looks to them like a deliberate Israeli attempt to stop a two-state solution,” Shamir said.
Beefing Up Security
Abbas received a standing ovation and was interrupted at least 10 times by applause during his Sept. 23 address in New York. While the Palestinian leader says his security forces will ensure a peaceful aftermath of any UN statehood vote, Israel has been beefing up troops throughout the West Bank.
Sporadic clashes there on the day Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both spoke at the UN General Assembly left one Palestinian dead and may have led to the death of an Israeli father and son, police said. The armed forces will be on full alert during the two-day Jewish New Year holiday, which starts today.
The Israeli army has stockpiled noise machines, water cannons shooting smelly fluids and other riot-control equipment inside settlements to repel any potential Palestinian attacks, according to Minister for Home Front Defense Matan Vilnai. Members of Netanyahu’s government, including Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, have proposed that Israel annex the most populous settlements should the UN vote for the plan.
Israel has built more than 120 settlements across the West Bank, which it captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war. Between the end of the settlement freeze in October 2010 and July of this year, 2,598 new housing units were started, according to analysis by the anti-settlement group Peace Now of aerial photos and visits. At least 3,700 units were under construction, the group said on its website.
In east Jerusalem, also taken in 1967, the Jewish population has grown by 200,000 and an Israeli Interior Ministry committee yesterday approved the construction of 1,100 new homes there. The U.S., the UN and the European Union criticized the decision, saying the move imperils the latest effort to revive Mideast peace efforts.
The Yesha Council, which represents the settlements, says about 70 percent of the population comprises Orthodox Jews. They tend to have a strong religious attachment to sites where much of the biblical narrative about ancient Israel played out, including Hebron and Shiloh.
Gush Etzion was first settled by Jews in 1940 and destroyed by the Arab forces before the state of Israel was declared in 1948. Since it was rebuilt after the 1967 war, the community has grown to 70,000 people in 22 settlements that function as suburbs of Jerusalem. Efrat, the largest, features white stone-trimmed garden apartments and a large immigrant population from the U.S. and the U.K.
Both Jewish and Palestinian shoppers flock to the well-stocked supermarket outside Efrat operated by Rami Levi Chain Stores Hashikma Marketing Ltd. Across the street, tourists buy the West Bank’s own Chardonnay and Merlot vintages from the Gush Etzion Winery.
Israeli leaders also cite strategic reasons for holding onto the West Bank, calling the country’s narrow borders before the 1967 war indefensible. Giving up land in the West Bank, for example, would make Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport -- 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the barrier separating the West Bank from Israel -- vulnerable to rocket attacks, they say.
Ministers Live There
The influence of settlers on Israeli government decisions has grown since Netanyahu and his Likud party-led coalition were elected in 2009: Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein both live in Gush Etzion.
Abbas, who came back from the UN this week to thousands of flag-waving Palestinians packed into the courtyard of his headquarters in Ramallah, says he won’t renew peace talks with Israel unless Netanyahu freezes settlement construction.
Netanyahu has declined to reimpose the 10-month freeze he declared in November 2009. He told the UN that settlements “are not the core of the conflict” and said he would meet Abbas any time to hear his position and restart peace talks.
Palestinians, settlers and soldiers are in daily contact with each other and confrontations are frequent. Two Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip left more than 6,000 Palestinians and 1,500 Israelis dead between 1987 and 2004.
The Israeli army spent the summer training soldiers and civilian security coordinators at settlements across the West Bank to get ready for the possibility of Palestinian demonstrations, Vilnai said at a Sept. 14 briefing in Tel Aviv.
“The security establishment is prepared with a wide range of methods,” Vilnai said. “They have been holding exercises and preparing themselves with the hope that there won’t be any problem in the end.”
The army’s emphasis is on non-lethal means of riot control, while teaching settlers to exercise restraint, said Goldstein, who built homes as a construction contractor before his 1999 election as mayor.
Now he is promoting a 10-year plan to expand Gush Etzion to a population of 90,000. Most settlements are also surrounded by perimeter-security fences and monitored by closed-circuit video equipment.
“These parades can start off non-violent and then they reach the main roads,” Goldstein, 52, said in a Sept. 26 phone interview. He joined other settler leaders this month to discuss security arrangements with Israel’s top West Bank military commander, Major-General Avi Mizrahi.
“Then the Palestinians throw stones and Molotov cocktails and they shoot at Israeli cars,” he said. “The minute that happens, the army goes in and we have an escalation.”
Undercut the Message
Violent demonstrations that reach the settlements would undercut the political message Palestinians wish to project: that they should be recognized by the UN as an independent state living side-by-side in peace with Israel, Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official who is part of the group that prepared the UN resolution according to Shtayyeh.
“This is a trap we’re not going to fall into,” said Shtayyeh at a Sept. 13 press conference in Ramallah. “We’re not inciting violence. We’re not engaging in violence. Under no circumstances.”
Still, some settlers are buying attack dogs raised by former New Yorker Michael Guzofsky, who said his Belgian Shepherds have been sent to 25 settlements.
“I’m getting a lot more orders now because people are worried about what sort of trouble this UN thing is going to set off,” said Guzofsky, who runs his “K9 Jewish Legion” business out of the Kfar Tapuach settlement in the northern West Bank.
Mizrahi outlined for the mayors an army assessment that most Palestinians don’t want to see the demonstrations turn violent, Goldstein said. Settlement security coordinators have undergone training by the army that focused on restraint.
“We were told not to open fire immediately,” Goldstein said. “Even if you see people approaching, sometimes there are other methods to stop them, like rubber bullets, water and stun-grenades.”