Lords of the Land

The War Over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007


By Idith Zertal

By Akiva Eldar

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Lords of the Land tells the tragic story of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the aftermath of the 1967 war and Israel’s devastating victory over its Arab neighbors, catastrophe struck both the soul and psyche of the state of Israel. Based on years of research, and written by one of Israel’s leading historians and journalists, this involving narrative focuses on the settlers themselves — often fueled by messianic zeal but also inspired by the original Zionist settlers — and shows the role the state of Israel has played in nurturing them through massive economic aid and legal sanctions. The occupation, the authors argue, has transformed the very foundations of Israel’s society, economy, army, history, language, moral profile, and international standing. “The vast majority of the 6.5 million Israelis who live in their country do not know any other reality,” the authors write. “The vast majority of the 3.5 million Palestinians who live in the regions of their occupied land do not know any other reality. The prolonged military occupation and the Jewish settlements that are perpetuating it have toppled Israeli governments and have brought Israel’s democracy and its political culture to the brink of an abyss.”


Courtesy of the Foundation for Middle East Peace http://www.fmep.org Mapmaker: Jan de Jong
The Gaza Strip
Courtesy of B'Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) http://www.btselem.org/ UN's OCHA

From a light plane flying over the West Bank, the view is beautiful. Stretching from the lush green of Samaria in the north, southward toward Jerusalem and over the yellowing Judean Hills that slope eastward down to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, the landscape modulates from Tuscan green to stony gray to desert. It is, from this height at least, a land of few people and much scenery. Small aggregates of life, like interlinked clusters of grapes or beehives, nestle in a valley or clamber up a hillside, strewn in clumps over wide empty spaces. White roads and shiny asphalt highways carved into the chalky rock extend from one settled hive to another.
As the Cessna flies at a lower altitude, greater details emerge. Brown wooden houses, red-tiled roofs, and here and there a blue splash of swimming pool in the midst of luxuriant foliage almost mingle with the small, light-colored stone cubes crowded around the tall minaret of a mosque, surrounded by expanses of wheat fields and olive groves. And then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a larger place materializes: a town, a pile of houses jumbled together with no discernible logic, climbing and descending a mountainside and surrounded by rocky land or cultivated groves.
But beneath the serene, colorful picture seen from the window of the cruising Cessna, the ideological grid of the territories reveals itself, as in an old and faded painting in which the layers of color on the canvas peek through and tell their story.1 This is the outline of the grand plan of the Jewish presence that determines the configurations and the reality on the ground. Gradually the subtext is exposed and the drama of the Jewish settlers' state, of the Israeli occupation, of the destruction and plunder, and of the lawbreaking unfolds in the deceptive landscape. The seemingly random patches of Jewish settlement become more meaningful, part of the pattern of renewed Jewish possession of "the land of the Fathers," at the expense of millions of Palestinians and of the wholeness of the Palestinian national body.
Four decades have passed since the 1967 war, after which Jewish citizens of Israel began to settle beyond the border of their state in contravention of international law, which prohibits an occupying state from transferring population into occupied territory.2 For approximately two-thirds of its history, Israel has been an occupying state. The State of Israel has been free of the malignancy of occupation for only nineteen of the fifty-nine years of its existence. The vast majority of the 7 million Israelis do not know any other reality. The vast majority of the 4 million Palestinians who live under occupation do not know any other reality. The prolonged military occupation and the Jewish settlements that are perpetuating it have toppled Israeli governments and brought Israel's democracy and its political culture to the brink of an abyss. They have transformed the very foundations of Israeli society, economy, army, history, language, moral profile, and international standing. A state that emerged out of the catastrophe of the destruction of European Jewry, and from it drew the legitimacy for the means of its establishment and for the very fact of its existence, is being crushed from within and is increasingly the subject of bitter controversy abroad because of the settlements.
When this book was first published in Hebrew, in early 2005, the Israeli proposal for "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of the Jewish settlements there was still a raw idea within a foggy thicket of unknown and unexpected factors. Yet another of the grandiose unilateral acts designed by Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister from 2001 to 2006, the disengagement plan led to a confrontation between the concepts of the State of Israel (the political, legal, and civic entity established and internationally recognized in 1948) and the Land of Israel, or Eretz Yisrael (the embodiment of millenarian, religious, and national aspirations and myths), and between their historical representatives, and seemingly threatened to break Israeli society in two. The most extreme members of the settler community have long declared the nullity of the State of Israel and of Israeli democracy, while most of them have vowed uncompromising resistance to what they see as the destruction of the Home (Hurban HaBayit, or Temple). However, despite the harsh scenes of collective hysteria, and the Judgment Day threats that went along with it, the actual disengagement, carried out in August 2005, has already nearly sunk into historical oblivion. To a large extent it was the settlers themselves who paid for their repeated apocalyptic prophecies and their going to the brink too many times. There is a limit to the catastrophic traumas that the overflowing collective Israeli memory can contain.
The disengagement operation seemed to some like the start of a new era in relations between Israel and the Palestinians: a first step in the painful and lengthy process of undoing the settlement project and Israel's return to the 1949-1967 borders. This was more wishful thinking than anything else. Others saw it as no more than yet another of Sharon's cunning and brilliant maneuvers, of sacrificing the handful of indefensible settlements in the Gaza Strip for the sake of winning the greater campaign for control of the West Bank and the settlements that Sharon himself had sown there. As for the settlers, who since the very beginning have been fighting for every house and every outpost they built on every godforsaken hill as though it were a replica of the Temple, and as if each one of them held the secret of their being and its raison d'être—they saw the disengagement as a kind of world war of Holocaust-like dimensions. In Sharon's unexpected collapse into a deep coma, which occurred just a few months after the destruction of the Gaza settlements, the settlers were able to see, with the spiritual guidance of their rabbis, a divine punishment of someone who dared to challenge them and their God.
Insofar as can be asserted today, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza was none of these. It did not inaugurate a new era of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, it did not ensure the settlements in the West Bank, and it did not bring Sharon's punishment down on him. Nor did it release Gaza for even a single day from Israel's military grip or from the price of the occupation that its inhabitants pay every day, nor did it bring quiet and security to the communities on the southwestern border of Israel, or even to its other borders. It gave rise only to more hatred, more destruction, and more hopelessness.
Under cover of the uproar over the disengagement, followed by the political upheavals in Israel that derived from it and then by the second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, the settlement fever and all it involves continues. Almost out of sight and out of mind, it is going on with the full cooperation of the State of Israel and its institutions, as though it were an involuntary, unconsidered movement of a body that has lost its mind. Tenders for building new neighborhoods in the settlements, mainly in the Greater Jerusalem area, continue to be published, and new houses are rising steadily. In 2005 alone construction began on 1,666 housing units in the West Bank. The number of Jewish settlers beyond the Green Line,3 which was long ago erased from Israel's textbooks and many of its history books, continues to rise at a steady rate. At the end of 2006 the number of settlers stood at 270,000 (to this number should be added some 220,000 settlers living in neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem, beyond the Green line), and since the withdrawal from Gaza nearly 20,000 new settlers have been added in the West Bank. Two-thirds of them were babies born in the settlements and the rest were newcomers, from Israel or other countries.
In November 2006, the Peace Now movement published a report based on official data of the State of Israel. This report found that more than 40 percent of settlement land in the occupied territories had been private lands owned by Palestinians and that 130 settlements were established wholly or in part on lands that the state itself had determined to be "private." The settlers took control of these lands, but it was the state that had confiscated them and enabled the settlement of its citizens in contravention of international law, of some government decisions and in many cases of court orders. It is in this context that one must interpret the theatrical display on February 1, 2006, when the government took down nine structures in the "illegal" outpost of Amona, on the outskirts of the flagship settlement of Ofra. This action did not express the government's desire to impose the law on the settlements; the show, during the course of which more than a thousand Israeli soldiers and police confronted several thousand screaming and kicking settlers, did in fact reveal the state's role in the settlement project. Indeed, while the government put its organized, legitimate force into action in order to take down a few houses of no importance in a bogus settlement that was barren from its inception, it continues to enable the expansion of the large, ostensibly legal settlements and in so doing deepens their grip and their ostensible legality. It was achieved by means of the demonstrative distinction the state made between the negligible, "illegal" outposts and the main, consensual settlements that are the heart of the problem, the aporia of the entire settlement project and in effect of the State of Israel since 1967.
Along with the expansion of the settlements, the annexation to Israel of part of the West Bank continued by means of the separation wall, which butchers the land. By the end of 2006 more than 50 percent of the route of the wall had been completed and put into operation (about 400 of the 790 kilometers planned, or 250 of 490 miles). An additional seventy-seven kilometers (forty-eight miles) were in various stages of construction, and the rest were in the planning stage, in legal proceedings, or in the process of authorization. Together with the roadblocks in the territories—several hundred of them, some huge and fixed, others smaller and mobile—this wall—the articulation, birth, and planning processes of which are extensively surveyed in the final chapter of this book—has become the most crucial factor in this twilight zone. The wall and the roadblocks are thwarting the movement of Palestinians in their land and their ability to work. They are separating people from their fields, their relatives, and their neighbors, and children from their schools. Not only have the wall and the roadblocks made the Palestinians' lives less and less tolerable, but they are also collapsing the foundation on which Israel has based its policy since 1967 and undermining its legitimacy as well as its moral and security claims.
On the face of it, the Jewish settlement project is an impressive geopolitical achievement. Scores of settlements are scattered in the large blocs around Jerusalem and on the western and eastern slopes and hilltops of the Samarian Hills. Settlements and outposts are sown in the Jordan Valley and in the Hebron Hills, Jewish neighborhoods are invading the heart of the town of Hebron, and Jewish suburbs are touching Nablus and Ramallah, creating a human and urban mix so volatile that any attempt to draw a border through it in order to separate the two peoples will entail bitter struggles and agony. During the years of the occupation, Israel has built approximately 120 "legal" settlements and countless "illegal outposts." Yeshivas, religious schools that provide premilitary training, industrial zones, gas stations, and quarries, have been established in the occupied territories. Even a large college has sprung up in the heart of Samaria, which is attended by both Jewish and Arab students from within the Green Line.
Nevertheless, and this too is a possible perspective, the vast majority of settlers live in large urban concentrations such as Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel, and Karnei Shomron. This is less than 10 percent of the Palestinian population that lives in the territory and less than 5 percent of the Jewish population in Israel. As surprising as this may seem, forty years of Jewish settlement in the territories have not filled the occupied land with Jews, despite the might that the settlers project and their massive presence on the Israeli agenda. Both from the perspective of the airplane and through the window of a car traveling through the West Bank, the overriding impression is of a land that is still relatively empty, and the further one goes from the ring of settlements to the north and south of Jerusalem, and from the settlements along the Green Line in central Israel, this impression grows stronger. Most of the settlements, including ones established more than twenty years ago as well as outposts just a few years old, look fragile, neglected, ephemeral, as though they lack vitality of their own. The network of infrastructures that link the settlements—the electricity grid, the water system, the formidable military forces that move around in the territory—are the elixir of life for the settlements, the secret of their power. Remove them from the equation and this project collapses like a house of cards. If Israeli society ever finds the courage to separate itself from the territories it occupied in war forty years ago, the country might finally restore its place in the region, and among the community of nations.
The obsession with Jewish settlement in the territories has altered over the years but has not subsided. Its high price can be seen daily on the ground and in the news. Both societies have been ravaged and are torn within themselves, though to differing extents, and the destruction is testimony not only to the disaster of settlement but also to a hubris that knows no bounds, of fanaticism that rises up against the fanatic and destroys both occupier and occupied, both settler and he whose land has been taken from him and has become the settlement of the other.
The history of the Jewish settlements, like the history of the establishment of Israel from the ashes of the Holocaust, is Israeli history, but it has always been a drama that has fascinated the entire world. The world sees itself as a partner and a player in that drama. Nevertheless, even though the settlements have been engaging governments, the media, and scholars here and abroad for four decades, to this day not a single comprehensive book has been written in Hebrew or in any other language about the Jewish settlements. The tale of the territories that were conquered by Israel in 1967, which in turn have conquered Israel's history, has not yet been told in full.4 This book attempts, for the first time, to do so. (It should be understood that it is comprehensive from the Israeli perspective only; we make no attempt to convey the forty-year occupation from the perspective of the Palestinians.) Lords of the Land was written during the years of the second Palestinian intifada, those agonizing years that revealed the price in horrors that is being paid for the occupation by both societies. Inevitably, this book has been influenced by the time of its writing. The present discussion has also been informed by the manner in which a modern power, unable to turn an impressive military victory into peace, has sunk into the endless human, moral, social, military, and political morass of occupation and domination of another people. This perspective also affords the authors the wisdom of hindsight, of a type that is never at the disposal of the history makers.
Lords of the Land charts a two-pronged development. On the one hand there is the settlement movement, which from its very inception was imbued with a sense of sacred national-religious mission. On the other hand we have seen the gradual collapse of the state's institutions, whether by choice or out of weakness in the face of the messianic zeal that burst into the public sphere after June 1967. Thus, this is the intertwined story of the settlers and of the State of Israel over the past forty years. The expansion of the settlements would not have been possible without massive aid from various state institutions, without legal sanction, and without the expedient and affective ties woven between the settlers and the military. The settlements flourished not only with the authorities' seal of approval but also with official encouragement and at the government's initiative.
The authorized, "legal" settlements began in the era of the Labor-led governments, from 1967 to 1977. They flourished in the days of the Likud governments that followed and during the subsequent period of the Labor, Likud, and unity governments. In the course of the negotiations that engendered the September 1993 Oslo agreement, and in the period following it, the settlements saw an unprecedented building boom. All the subsequent governments have made a point of approving new construction, ostensibly only within the boundaries of the existing settlements, but they have always supported—by political and budgetary deed and by failing to enforce the law and deter violations—the establishment of new settlements in the guise of new neighborhoods and "illegal" outposts. Thousands of elected officials and civil servants—politicians, magistrates, attorneys general, army commanders, academics—have lent a hand over the years, some openly and some discreetly, to the Jewish settlement project. At the same time, very few intellectuals and media people, along with human rights organizations, have sounded alarm bells in regard to the expansion of the settlements, the continuing seizure of lands, and the ever heavier oppression of the Palestinians. Yet there has been no reckoning. To this day, no one has assumed responsibility or has been called to account for his part in the settlement project. Perhaps Israeli society has been relatively silent about it because, even as it has become less democratic, less humane, less rational, and at the same time poorer, more divided, and more hateful, the lives of most Israelis have continued unhindered while the settlements have been conquering Israel and destroying the lives of the Palestinians.
The story of the settlements and the occupation is huge: complex and elusive in its first years; wild, tragic, and omnipresent as the occupation has deepened. It spreads, as we have said, over forty years, and there are innumerable individuals who have been allies and partners to it, to one degree or another, both on behalf of the state and on the part of the settlers. It has had its many moments in the spotlight, as documented in this book, but it is also made up of the routine and relatively quiet process of settling and expansion, composed of myriad details. This story has not yet ended, and its denouement is not known. Part of it, then, is history, part of it is current events, and part of it is hidden in an unknown future. To cover this complex history in its various facets, the book was divided into three sections: the first, containing the first three chapters, covers the narrative; the second, containing the four subsequent chapters, which constitute the core of the book, offers the analytical, thematic study of the settlement phenomenon. The concluding chapter links the chronological to the thematic discussion.
Thus the first section of the book, titled "The Forty-Year War," sets forth the political infrastructure of the events, from their beginnings to the end of the year 2000. The first chapter in this section covers the years between 1967 and 1977: the first settlements in the Etzion Bloc and Hebron; the vacillation of Labor governments in the face of the first settlers; the role played by personalities like Yigal Allon, Israel Galili, Moshe Dayan, and Shimon Peres in the development of the settlements; and the first steps of the settler movement Gush Emunim (Bloc of Faith). Chapter 2, from 1977 to 1992, covers the years during which the state was administered by Likud or national unity governments. Those were the years of Menachem Begin, who turned out to be a great disappointment for the settlers, but also the years of Ariel Sharon, the powerhouse behind the expansion of the settlements and their spread throughout the West Bank in order to thwart evacuation and return of the land to the Palestinians. This chapter also deals with the increasing violence on both sides and tells the story of the Jewish terror group that was active in the early 1980s as well as the period covered by the first Palestinian intifada, which began in December 1987. Chapter 3 covers the 1990s, with the expansion and development of the settlements under the umbrella of the Oslo agreements as an accompanying leitmotif to the 1994 massacre in Hebron of twenty-nine Palestinians by settler extremist Baruch Goldstein, and the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by the extremist Jew Yigal Amir. This chapter also follows, for the first time, the thread that led from the massacre in Hebron to the murder in the heart of Tel Aviv.
The second, thematic section, titled "From Redemption to Destruction," begins with Chapter 4, which is devoted to the study of the historical and ideological origins of Gush Emunim and to the unique modes of action developed by this organization, which, because of its nature, its heritage, its discourse, and its people, turned into the most sophisticated and influential political movement since the establishment of the state, and also the most dangerous. Chapter 5 examines the culture of death and the cult of death in the settler community, and the way that death and the dead became a powerful political tool in the hands of the settlers. Chapter 6 probes the special relations and complicity that developed between the settlers, on the one hand, and the higher echelons of the military forces and the security establishment, on the other, and analyzes the intimate and fruitful connection between the two parties. Chapter 7, which concludes this section, is an inquiry into the legal dimension of the settlement project. It tracks the ways in which the various legal authorities—from the Judge Advocate General in the Six-Day War and afterward, through attorneys general, state prosecutors, courts, and scholars—sanctioned and legitimized the occupation and the settlements. This chapter analyzes the legalization of the basic illegality of the civilian Jewish presence in the occupied territories, which has enabled constant violation of the law by the settlers and nonenforcement of the law with regard to them. It demonstrates the norm of blatant inequality before the law, as law professor and parliamentarian Amnon Rubinstein said in the Knesset, that in the territories "there are Israeli citizens with full rights, and there are non-Israeli non-citizens with non-rights."5 Chapter 8, which concludes the book, tells the story of the years 2000-2007, the years of the cruel war for the settlements, of Palestinian terror, and of the separation wall, with a spotlight on Ariel Sharon's role in the perpetuation of the occupation and the settlements until his unexpected, fateful disappearance from the public eye, which already bears the signs of a mythical event.
It is no accident that a chapter on the full economic price of the settlements and their consequences is absent from Lords of the Land. These pages do contain a great deal of information about the cost of the successive phases of the settlement project. Such information is abundantly available in the public domain, buried in the state budget books, and documented frequently in parliamentary questions in the Knesset, in the press, in reports of social organizations, in State Comptroller's Reports, and elsewhere.6 However, we have not succeeded in calculating a sufficiently precise exposition of this matter and a comprehensive price tag for the entire four decades of the settlement phenomenon. This is the result of the systematic way in which unfathomable amounts of state funding have been directly and indirectly channeled to the settlements through innumerable tracks and under various guises and disguises. It was purposely done via government ministries and other state agencies, as well as with the help of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, with the money's ultimate destination intentionally concealed.7
Deception, shame, concealment, denial, and repression have characterized the state's behavior with respect to the flow of funds to the settlements. It can be said that this has been an act of public duplicity in which all of the Israeli governments since 1967 have been partner. This massive self-deception still awaits the research that will reveal its full magnitude. The citizens of Israel are not only entitled to know the full economic price of the settlements; they also owe themselves an answer to the question of why their state has been involved for many decades in a political project with inestimable historical implications, all the while blurring the tracks of its involvement. Why have we done everything possible to conceal our deeds, from ourselves and from the world? Is this dissimulation evidence of knowledge and awareness of the sin? Thus the question must also be asked as to what Israel's statesmen and politicians in this era were thinking, and what Israel's citizens were envisioning, as they invested themselves ever more deeply in such an enormous project of occupation and settlement during the last third of the twentieth century. This was, after all, the era of postcolonialism, marked by the bitter aftermath of the crumbling of the world's last occupying regimes and by the awareness of the lethality of any occupation anywhere, not only for the occupied but also for the occupier.
Although we conducted scores of interviews and conversations with government officials, the military, jurists, economists, and settlers, some of whom appear in the book by name and others who asked not to be identified, Lords of the Land is based primarily on written sources, official papers, and documents both open and classified, transcripts of court proceedings, State Comptroller's Reports, Knesset proceedings, and reports and studies from human rights organizations and Internet sites. Beyond that, we have had recourse to the abundant work of the Israeli and foreign media, which have closely followed the settlement project in all its facets from its very inception. Newspaper archives have proved to be a large and rich source of knowledge and insight, and the use of many and varied journalistic sources, often contradictory in outlook, has rounded our perspective and added to the subtlety and complexity of the portrait. The work of certain journalists in particular in covering the settlements over the years, such as Nadav Shragai of Ha'aretz, has aided us greatly and has been a crucial source of information for us. The settler society, on the whole a highly ideological community that is imbued with a sense of mission, speaks and writes extensively both within the community and to the surrounding society. We have therefore referred extensively to its publications, such as Nekudah and Besheva. We have also made use of the relatively limited secondary research literature that exists on the subject. These materials are cited where appropriate. But Lords of the Land is based for the most part on primary sources, and the responsibility for what is written is entirely ours.


On Sale
Jun 9, 2009
Page Count
400 pages
Bold Type Books

Idith Zertal

About the Author

Professor Idith Zertal, PhD, is a leading Israeli historian. Among her major publications are From Catastrophe to Power: Holocaust Survivors and the Emergence of Israel and Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood. She currently teaches at the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Basel and lives in Israel and Switzerland. In 2009 she will be a fellow of the Remarque Institute at New York University.

Akiva Eldar is currently chief political columnist and editorial writer for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. In May 2006 the Financial Times selected him as among the most prominent and influential commentators in the world. He lives in Israel.

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