A Different Kind of Divestment

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April 8, 2010

During a recent stint of reserve duty, I found myself guarding a hilltop settlement of three small families, just outside of Nablus, with six other young soldiers. On a cold midnight patrol, my sergeant, finger on the trigger, made the comment in passing that there were more soldiers assigned to the protection of the hilltop than settlers living there. Throughout the remainder of the patrol, I thought about his words, considering the cost, to myself personally, and Israeli society as a whole, of protecting the outpost.

The recent crisis regarding Israel’s decision to include West Bank sites on its National Heritage sites list has once again shifted international focus to Israel’s settlement policy. Conventional wisdom in Israel regarding the Palestinians and the settlements has largely been viewed in zero-sum terms; ending the settlement enterprise would be beneficial to the Palestinians, and constitute a loss for Israel. However, an assessment of the economic burden incurred by both the Israelis and Palestinians shows a very different picture, one in which ending the settlement enterprise would benefit both sides.

The economic costs of the occupation to Palestinians living in the West Bank have become an accepted reality in Israeli society. What is less prevalent is acknowledging the economic burden for Israel created by the settlement enterprise. While the education ministry’s budget has been cut by NIS 4.8 billion between 2001 and 2009 and the unemployment rate hovers around 8 percent, Netanyahu’s recent decision to redraw the ‘national priority map’ to include outlying settlements has allocated an additional NIS 4.5 billion to settlements to be used for education, employment, and [infrastructure]. Israelis have much on their plate, ranging from security concerns, and a struggling education system, to high unemployment rates. We have become accustomed to conflict and an attitude that ‘there is nothing we can do’ while we remain unwilling to accept the status quo. The truth is that there is a solution, but for a variety of reasons most Israelis don’t want to consider it.

Israel’s budget allocates almost nine percent of public expenditure to Israel’s settlements, while their residents constitute less than four percent of Israel’s population. (That is more than double!) Additionally, much of Israel’s security expenditure, which constitutes over 15 percent nover 15 percentof the national budget, is spent on protecting West Bank settlements. This is not to mention the disproportionate allocation of resources towards the settlements from the various other government ministries.

Because of this imbalance, the average Israeli citizen should ask themselves hard questions, such as, “Am I willing to pay the costs of the settlement enterprise? Am I willing to send my kids to inadequate public schools when the money to improve our education system would be readily available if the settlements did not exist? Am I willing to pay exorbitant taxes to cover the price of seven soldiers protecting three families on a hilltop overlooking Nablus?” As simple as these questions seem, too many Israelis take them for granted.

To be sure, the emotional attachment many feel to the land creates a more complicated picture than the economic data would indicate. For some, this emotional attachment is based on nationalism, while for many others it is a religious conviction. No matter what the reason, the fact remains that giving up on Jewish settlement of the Biblical land of Israel creates deeply conflicting feelings in many Israelis. However, in order for Israel to grow and succeed as an economically viable liberal democracy, its citizens must choose rational thinking over emotional impulses. Decisions must be made based on the long-term interests of the state, not emotional reactions and particular kinds of religious attitudes.

Furthermore, many Israelis argue that a continued military presence in the West Bank is essential for the security of the state of Israel. As a member of an IDF Special Forces unit, I understand the importance of arresting terrorists deep in the heart of Palestinian cities and villages. What I do not understand, however, is what that has to do with Israeli settlements. While an end to the settlement enterprise need not correspond with the end of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank, it would go a long way towards making available much needed capital for government ministries operating inside the state of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent decision to add the cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s tomb, situated in Hebron and Bethlehem respectively, to the National Heritage sites list has illuminated the Israeli government’s position of strengthening the settlement enterprise’s foothold in the West Bank. The Prime Minister’s decision can easily be justified if one views the settlement issue in zero-sum terms, from a reactionary perspective.

However, when one recognizes the mutual benefit, for Palestinians and Israelis, of ending the settlement enterprise, the equation is drastically changed. The recent ten month settlement freeze, while imperfect, was a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, by adding West Bank sites to the National Heritage list, Netanyahu has taken a step backward. It is time for Israel to act, not only for the benefit of the Palestinians, but out of its own self-interest, and end the settlement enterprise in the West Bank once and for all. The economic calculus, in favor of a withdrawal, is only the tip of the iceberg. The metaphorical savings, for Israeli society, are far greater.

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