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Facts on the Ground

Binyamin Rose

No overview of what’s changed in Israel since the Six Day War would be complete without a discussion of how the settlement movement has altered the face, and shape, of the nation’s heartland

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

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FEARS AND DREAMS Yisrael Medad, a historian who has often been referred to as a “walking encyclopedia” of the Yesha movement, talks about the early heady days, about being politically marginalized, about consensus, and about a nation’s fears and dreams (Photos: Lior Mizrahi, Flash 90, GPO)

F or those who enjoy word-association games, mention the word “settlement,” especially in the context of the Middle East, and you will evoke a wide range of reactions.

For some, settlements imply a return to the Jewish biblical heartland, a return that is an inalienable right, even a mandate from G-d.

For others, it’s either an impediment to peace, or no longer an impediment to peace, but perhaps just unhelpful.

For yet others, the word implies apartheid, human-rights abuses, and Palestinian dislocation.

Some people feel that the settlement enterprise, which began shortly after the Six Day War, is an unnecessary provocation of the nations, while others note that the half-century of diplomatic pronouncements condemning the movement is just lip service to the Arabs. After all, every politician of sound mind knows that it’s just one of many issues that men of goodwill could solve — if one day, all the bad blood gives way to goodwill.

Until then, as the saying goes in the Middle East, the settlements are facts on the ground. And today, the facts are that some 720,000 Jews, or almost 11 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, live either in one of the many new Jerusalem neighborhoods populated on territory Israel captured in the Six Day War, or in one the 150 new settlements that has sprung up in Judea and Samaria.

While the national-religious movement is the strongest driving force behind the settlement movement, chareidim also live in Judea and Samaria, though their prime motivations are affordable housing and living in exclusively chareidi communities. Today, the chareidi communities of Kiryat Sefer/Modiin Illit (population: 68,372 as of January 1, 2017) and Beitar Illit (population: 54,921) are the largest cities in Judea and Samaria. Maaleh Adumim is a distant third, with 40,828 people, and Ariel (19,787) and Givat Ze’ev (18,117) round out the top five.

Including chareidim scattered among many other yishuvim, some 30 to 33 percent of the Yesha population today is ultra-Orthodox.

A lot of people, especially millennials, are ignorant about Jewish history and Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, and act as if everything we came back to in 1967 was new, and something we took from the Arabs. Jews have been living in Yehudah and Shomron for the last 1,800 years

For Yisrael Medad, the welcome mat is extended to anyone. Born in New York, Medad graduated from Yeshiva University in 1969 with a degree in political science. He made aliyah a year later, and has lived in the Shomron community of Shiloh — the place where the Mishkan stood — for almost 37 years. Medad was the first English-speaking spokesman for the Gush Emunim movement, formed in 1974 to advocate for Israeli sovereignty over and settlement of all land captured in the Six Day War.

From 1981 to 1992, he served as a parliamentary aide to Knesset member Geula Cohen, and as an adviser of international affairs to cabinet minister Yuval Ne’eman. He also served as director of Israel’s Media Watch from 1995 to 2000, and is a frequent contributor and blogger to op-ed pages in several publications, including the Jerusalem Post, Arutz 7, and the Los Angeles Times.

Medad today is director of educational and informational resources at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, a place that celebrates the prime minister who allowed the settlements to thrive. The day I caught up with him for our interview was very apropos to the discussion. It was the 40th anniversary of what’s known in Israel as the mahapach, the revolution, when Menachem Begin ended almost 30 years of Labor control over the Knesset, ushering in the onset of center-right rule in Israel, which, with a few notable interruptions, has continued to this day.

Perhaps you can start by walking us through the beginnings of the Yesha movement. Following the Six Day War, when Israel captured all of Jerusalem and the Yehudah and Shomron, where did the idea originate that Israel would start building yishuvim and attract people to move there?

I think the first idea would have come from the children of Gush Etzion, and specifically Kfar Etzion, in the region the Arabs conquered in 1948.

There were four kibbutzim that were destroyed, and close to 150 Jews were massacred on the day before the state was created. Many others went into captivity, including Rav She’ar Yashuv Cohen from the Old City, and were sent out to a desert in Jordan. As it turned out, most of the children, many of whom were orphaned, kept in contact all those 19 years [between 1948 and 1967]. Each year, they would reunite at a lookout point in south Jerusalem, where they could get a view of their former home. So they, more than any other factor, were a major part of the Yesha movement. And so immediately after the Six Day War, as the famous story goes, they went to [Prime Minister] Levi Eshkol, and they said: “We want to return home.”

Gush Etzion has always been considered part of the “consensus,” meaning that even left-wing Israelis oppose ceding it to the Palestinians in any possible peace treaty. Part of that is because the saga of Israel’s heroic defense, even in a losing cause, a story dear in the hearts and minds of Israelis. Is that still the case today?

A lot of people, especially millennials, are ignorant about Jewish history and Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, and act as if everything we came back to in 1967 was new, and something we took from the Arabs. Jews have been living in Yehudah and Shomron for the last 1,800 years. If you examine every single decade of those 1,800 years, you’ll find Jews doing something in Eretz Yisrael, coming to Eretz Yisrael, or donating money for those living in Eretz Yisrael. There were Jews living in Chevron almost the entire period, especially after the expulsion from Spain. Tzfas had the first printing press in all the Middle East in the 16th century. We managed to take Har Tzion back from the Franciscans in the mid-14th century. That’s how strong Jews were in Jerusalem. So — to return to the story — the original members of Kfar Etzion came back and said we’re going back to Gush Etzion, and they set up Kfar Etzion first. 

Levi Eshkol had no problem with this?

The story goes that he misunderstood them. He thought they just wanted to go back for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So he said to them, “Kinderlach, you want to go back? Go back!” And that was the beginning. 

It took about seven years following the resettlement of Gush Etzion until the founding of the religious and ideological settlement movement Gush Emunim after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. What went on during the interim?

We had the Allon Plan. [Former Israeli general and Minister of Labor] Yigal Allon decided Israel shouldn’t rule over so many Arabs. So he said, we’ll leave them the hills. But from what’s now known as the Allon Road, on the edge of the Judean Desert, down toward Jericho, he decided that was land we needed for security, so he began to set up Nachal settlements. Today, you have a whole line of communities, close to 25, along the Jordan River from Tirat Tzvi in the North, all the way down to the Dead Sea. The purpose of these communities was to say to the Palestinians that any future Palestinian State doesn’t get to the Jordan River. And the way to ensure that is to put up a kibbutz, a moshav, or an agricultural settlement.

When Yigal Allon referred to hills that had to be avoided, which ones did he mean?

The Shechem area, the Binyamin area, what we know today as Highway 60. From Jerusalem, north to Afula. I used to take the bus sometimes to Afula when I was giving a lecture up north and it went straight through downtown Shechem, and then on to Jenin and then Afula. But today, we have a lot of support for keeping that area. For years, people have been taking pictures of those hills and Tel Aviv is visible from there. You can find pictures of the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv as seen through binoculars, and sometimes, on a clear day you don’t even need binoculars to see what’s going on in Tel Aviv. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 661)

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