After the war, for security purposes, the ruling Labor government scattered small agricultural settlements and military outposts on the Golan Heights and in the Jordan Valley. Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon proposed additional settlements to preserve Me’arat HaMachpelah and Rachel’s Tomb “within the boundaries of the state of Israel.” But the future of Judea and Samaria remained unresolved. That summer the Arab states declared at Khartoum: “No peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel.”
It took the devastating shock of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the election of Menachem Begin as prime minister four years later to galvanize the settlement movement. After thirty years in the political wilderness, Begin faced exultant supporters on election night wearing a yarmulke and reciting psalms. Asked to form a new government he went to pray at the Western Wall. For the first time Israel had a prime minister who framed his politics within the language and symbols of Judaism.
But Begin’s decision to dismantle Sinai settlements as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, and his assurance of autonomy for West Bank Palestinians, galvanized religious Zionist settlers who sensed that their opportunity might be slipping away. “No government,” declared Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the founding father of the restored Hebron community, “has the authority or right to say that a Jew cannot live in all of the parts of the Land of Israel.”
Led by Gush Emunim, the “bloc of the faithful,” and supported by Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon, settlements began to sprout in Judea and Samaria. A generation of religious Zionists, inspired by the opportunity presented by the Six-Day War to return to the ancient homeland, became the impassioned – and widely despised – settlers who would transform the geography and politics of Israel.
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Within a decade the surge of religious enthusiasm following the Six-Day War led to the emergence of a new Israel in which right-wing politicians and national religious groups ascended to political power and, for the first time, achieved a measure of Zionist legitimacy. The “bourgeois and hedonistic metropolis” of Tel Aviv, lamented literary scholar Dan Miron, had yielded to “the stronghold of nationalism and ultra-Orthodoxy” in Jerusalem.
To Israelis on the political left, an enlightened secular nation had been overwhelmed by religious zealotry, Khomeinism, and irrationality. From the rule of law under Supreme Court justices and Labor politicians Israel became a nation ruled by the “Messianic religious fanaticism” of rabbis and settlers who gave the Jewish state a bad name in Western cultural and political precincts. By 1984 (an appropriate literary year for such dire conclusions), there were warnings on the left of Israel being overtaken by “Dark Medieval Fascism.”
By now more than 300,000 Israelis live in Judea and Samaria. Most, however, are not the fierce religious Zionists who are endlessly castigated for illegally occupying “Palestinian” land. Many residents simply wanted new homes at affordable prices within an easy commute to Tel Aviv. The two largest settlements, abutting Jerusalem, are haredi enclaves whose residents sought escape for their families from inner-city congestion.
But they are all linked together as the despised “Jewish settlers” whom the world, joined by Israeli media, academic and literary luminaries, love to hate – for nothing more than their determination to build homes in the biblical Land of Israel.
Little attention is paid, in Israel or elsewhere, to the settlement rights guaranteed to Jews by international agreements spreading across forty-five years. The League of Nations Mandate of 1922 guaranteed to Jews “close settlement” west of the Jordan River. This was affirmed in Article 80 of the United Nations Charter, drafted in 1945 by Jewish representatives (and known as the “Palestine clause”). It protected the rights of “any peoples” and “the terms of existing international instruments” – an implicit reference to the Mandate guarantees.
UN Resolution 242, enacted after the Six-Day War, called only for the return of “territories,” not “the territories” or “all the territories” that Israel gained from Arab aggression – and then only upon “the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
Testifying before the British Peel Commission in 1937, David Ben-Gurion had been asked to identify the source of the Jewish claim to Palestine. He responded succinctly: “The Bible is our mandate.”