Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" is reported to have overwhelming support among the Israeli public, but few are as enthusiastic as the former residents of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. As tens of thousands of Israeli troops descend on Gaza in an apocalyptic frenzy, scores of determined settlers are prepared to enter in their wake.
The Gaza settlements were dismantled in August 2005 as part of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. In a single stroke, the Israeli army removed 8,000 people from the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the southwest corner of the Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border and from four smaller settlements in northern and central Gaza.
In spirit, many of the Gaza settlers never left the coveted Palestinian territory on the Mediterranean coast. Despite ample compensation from the Israeli government, many have chosen to live in nearby caravan camps in desert towns between Ashdod and Ashkelon, clustered with families from the same settlement of origin. Most of the settlers didn't pack before they were escorted out of their compounds, not believing that the Israeli government would permanently expel them. Some have posted the road signs identifying their old settlements in their camps.
The evacuees have reportedly suffered from high rates of divorce, drug abuse and other problem behavior. Imbued with messianic zeal, for the last three-and-a-half years, they have been mobilizing to resettle the land they believe is theirs by divine right.
Settler activists are counting on their historically strong ties to the Israeli military, with some units composed entirely of settlers, to help in their fight. Indeed, some soldiers and reservists currently in Gaza were there three years ago living in cherished settlement communities. On Monday, an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz described the bittersweet reactions of soldiers who had lived in Gaza settlements and are now back in uniform, noting, "Some see it as a first step toward returning to their former homes."
Earlier this year, Haaretz reported on settlers' plans to follow the Israeli army into Gaza. Boaz Haetzni, a leader of the settler movement, explained, "In our estimation the 'big operation' is only a matter of time; we will follow them in. We will not ask for permission from anyone. The [settlement] groups will be ready ... These core groups will do exactly what the group that re-established Kfar Etzion did after 1967. They will return to the lands where they existed in the past and will rebuild them."
Kfar Etzion was the first Israeli settlement established in the West Bank after the end of the Six Day War and is now part of a large bloc of settlements connecting Jerusalem to Hebron.
In August, settlers and their supporters commemorated the third anniversary of the Gaza evacuation at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. The event featured music, prayers, testimonials and updates from volunteers assisting the Gush Katif "refugees." A flyer promoting the event highlighted a biblical passage: "And the threefold cord is not easily broken" (Kohelet 4:12), a reference to the strength of the bond tying the Gush Katif settlers to one another and to the support they receive from the broader community of supporters in Israel and abroad.
The program was similar to "A Tribute To Hebron," an event held at the Great Synagogue in late December. This event, organized by www.thelandofisrael.com, was a fundraiser for the Beit Hashalom settlers, who were evicted earlier in the month from their illegally occupied house in the heart of Hebron. The night included live music, comedy sketches and a speech by former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Danny Ayalon, a prominent leader of the settler movement.
Both events reflect the pattern that has emerged over the last several decades. After Palestinian land is seized by the Israeli army, settlements are established, connected to Israel’s electricity, water and security system, and aggressively marketed to potential residents. Today, Israeli settlements and the state security apparatus cover over 40 percent of the West Bank. Nearly half a million Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, all of which are considered illegal under international law.
As with the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, the Israeli government occasionally dismantles overly controversial settlements, amid great fanfare, but new settlements continue to be built and existing ones expanded. In the three years since the state of Israel removed its settlers from Gaza soil, it has authorized the construction of thousands of new housing units for West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements. To make room for these settlements, thousands of Palestinian homes have been demolished, and in East Jerusalem, entire Palestinian neighborhoods are still being cleared. According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, 19,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967. All the while, mainstream political elements decry "radical" settlers as violent extremists even as they celebrate their achievements and help establish new colonies.
Israelis differentiate between "economic settlers," those who move to the occupied territories for subsidized housing and a better "quality of life," and "ideological settlers," nationalists who seek to establish a "Greater Israel" from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. But the distinction is overstated. Residents of the large suburban settlements that encircle Jerusalem (Ma’ale Adumim, Pisgat Ze’ev, etc.) are embedded in social networks that include radical leaders from the so-called ideological settlements (Gush Etzion, Kiryat Arba, Hebron and the smaller outposts). And many suburban settlers have an intensely militant outlook, feeling themselves to be under siege just as they view the Gush Katif and Hebron "refugees" as demonized and besieged.
For the Beit Hashalom supporters the mood at the Great Synagogue in late December was jubilant, coming just days after the settlers' zealous stand against the Israeli army and with plenty of time to implement what they refer to as their new "price tag" policy of payback for evacuations carried out by the Israeli army and police.
In Hebron, as elsewhere, the price tag has come in the form of fiery pogroms against Palestinians. According to a recent United Nations report, there has been a surge in Israeli settler violence across the West Bank, with at least 290 incidents of violence against Palestinians documented between January and October 2008.
The increase in violence may be related to the "price tag" policy, but the settlers' strategy reflects nothing new: the price Palestinians have paid throughout Israel’s 60-year history is incalculable in economic, social and demographic terms.
Nonetheless, because of their humiliating departure from Gaza and years of displacement, the Gush Katif settlers believe they have paid the greatest price. Not a day seems to go by without media coverage of their plight. On Dec. 31 the Jerusalem Post published an editorial on Hamas rocket attacks by Rachel Saperstein, a settler from Gush Katif who lamented, "From our homes in Gush Katif to cardboard caravillas in a refugee camp to a sewer pipe. We have certainly hit rock bottom." On the same day, Arutz Sheva, a right-wing Internet news site, published an editorial by Nadia Matar that calls for Israel to "free Gaza from its Arab occupation ... and rebuild the 25 beautiful Jewish communities of Gush Katif."
Although government agencies have attempted to move the former residents of Gush Katif to new settlements in the West Bank and the Negev, most have stayed in southern Israel, waiting for their day of return to resurrected Jewish enclaves in the ravaged Gaza Strip.
That day, and the promise of redemption revived by Israel’s bloody price tag policy in Gaza, draws closer with each hour of "Operation Cast Lead."