Settlements and Security: An Illusion?

Contrary to popular belief, most of Israel’s security forces in the West Bank are not engaged in fighting terrorism but rather in guarding settlements.
September 20, 2023
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Since the end of the second intifada in 2005, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been largely smoldered. Hamas has launched small-scale wars from the Gaza Strip, and Palestinian armed groups and individuals have carried out terrorist attacks in the West Bank, and in Israel, prompting stringent Israeli military responses.

Recent months, however, have shown an increase in a distinct type of hostility accompanied by a deadly rise of violence among Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank. This can be attributed in part due to the increased radicalization among Palestinian youth and the intensification of the religious aspect of the conflict among certain sectors of Israelis. In June, dozens of settlers (Israeli civilians living beyond the green line) entered and attacked the Palestinian town of Turmus Ayya. Some thirty houses and sixty cars were burned. Then there was the Palestinian terror attack in the Eli settlement, which claimed the lives of four Israelis.

Following the attack, roughly twenty settlers set cars on fire in the Palestinian village of Hawara —the site of an earlier attack where 400 settlers entered the town, and torched homes and vehicles in the spirit of the Kahanist anthem “Let Their Village Burn.” There have been 25 serious attacks by settlers in the West Bank in the first six months of this year, and 680 incidents of stone-throwing or assault of Palestinians recorded by the OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) to date. This has been accompanied by antagonism, and in some cases, acts of violence by settler groups directed at IDF soldiers and Israeli police.

One might be tempted to dismiss this phenomenon as another sequence of violent incidents perpetrated by the self-styled “hilltop youth,” a radical and lawless group of young settlers known for their aggressive stance toward both Palestinians and Israeli authorities. However, it is worth pausing to reflect on why this image is incomplete. The origins of these attacks do not lie solely within the spontaneous actions of some wayward teens. What we are observing is a meticulously planned strategy that was set into motion years ago by central figures of the settlement movement—the Regional Councils in the West Bank, which originally orchestrated its execution.

Official publications from the Samaria Residents’ Committee revealed the rationale behind this strategy. “It is time to change the way we fight!” declared a committee pamphlet. “We will start a battle on several fronts, and the government will not be able to control it.” The Samaria Residents’ Committee also initiated and encouraged rioting, and its leaders even praised damage to Palestinian property and promoted attacks against Palestinian civilians. Their goal, announced Committee Chair Itzik Shadmi, is to “bring the government down to its knees.”

More than a decade later, Israel finds itself with far-right parliamentarians who act as the national representatives of the settlement movement and their actions align with its councils. 

More than a decade later, Israel finds itself with far-right parliamentarians who act as the national representatives of the settlement movement and their actions align with its councils. One only needs to recall MK Bezalel Smotrich’s call to “wipe out” Hawara and MK Itamar Ben Gvir who said that the settlers involved in the deadly clash in the Palestinian town of Burqa “should be rewarded.” One of the individuals apprehended following the violent confrontation in Burqa was Elisha Yered, a former spokesperson who served under MK Limor Son Har-Melech from Otzma Yehudit, the party led by Ben Gvir. Furthermore, in 2023, there has been a record-setting surge in settlement construction within the territories, marked by the approval of 12,855 housing units across the Green Line.

All of this begins to reveal the government’s wider political program that is driving the judicial overhaul. There is a deep-inherent connection between the overhaul, the desire to shift the situation on the ground from occupation to annexation, and the harm inflicted upon the democratic framework of the State of Israel. To understand this connection, it’s crucial to recognize that after the disengagements—actions that the settlement movement saw as betrayals of their historical mission to bring about messianic redemption through settling the entire land—the objectives of the movement evolved. The classical Zionist state was no longer seen as a holy vehicle from which the settlers could “export” Israel into the territories, but a state that operates on principles that have proved to be an obstacle.

There is a deep-inherent connection between the judicial overhaul, the desire to shift the situation on the ground from occupation to annexation, and the harm inflicted upon the democratic framework of the State of Israel.

The settlement movement is no longer solely fixated on territorial expansion across the West Bank. Rather, it came to recognize that achieving such expansion necessitates the complete transformation of the State of Israel itself. This entails shaping the state’s institutions in a manner that mirrors the West Bank and forging a governing system that fundamentally departs from democratic principles. Overhauling the judiciary is just the first step in trying to create this as reality.

Despite this agenda becoming more apparent to many Israelis, the expansion of settlements is framed by the government as a security response to Palestinian terrorism, a notion that has been emphasized for years. However, the situation on the ground paints a different picture. Alongside the “construction equals enhanced security” policy, 2023 has proven to be one of the deadliest years since the second intifada for Israelis, even in the absence of a large-scale war or prolonged military operation. Military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari spoke of settler violence saying that “the nationalist crime and nationalist terror … push civilians in the Palestinian Authority who are not involved in terror—to terror.” The head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, Ronen Bar, echoed this sentiment and warned Prime Minister Netanyahu that construction and settler violence was fueling Palestinian terrorism.

Granted that the government responded to the security establishment with an onslaught of verbal attacks and hubris, there is a need for a fundamental reevaluation of Israel’s role in the West Bank. The first step in this process entails debunking the common misconception that the settlements not only bolster security but also function as the first line of defense, ensuring the safety of those living within Israel proper. The origins of such an illusion can be traced back to the conflation of the two distinct aspects of Israel’s presence in the West Bank: the military presence and the civilian presence. Those advocating for the settlement movement have gone to great lengths to blur this crucial distinction, leaving many to believe that without the civilian presence, the military cannot carry out its duty to effectively safeguard the state. Even if we are to set aside the phenomenon of violence perpetrated by settler extremists, the opposite is true: The settlements do not serve Israel’s security; the Israeli security forces serve the settlements.

Contrary to popular belief, most of Israel’s security forces in the West Bank are not engaged in fighting terrorism but rather in guarding settlements. According to Former deputy chief of staff Moshe Kaplinsky cataloged in a Molad study: “An estimated 80% of IDF forces in the West Bank are engaged in safeguarding settlers and settlements, and only 20% in defending Israel proper.”

Properly protecting the settlements in the West Bank requires a massive deployment of forces, as their mission is unique: to secure civilians living in the heart of enemy territory. The IDF deploys more than 50%—sometimes even 75%—of its overall combat forces to the West Bank. This is more than the forces assigned to borders on all other fronts put together (Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Sinai and the Arava strip along the border with Jordan).

Unlike on all these other fronts where Israel has drawn borders, the “line” that separates Israel’s sovereign territory from the West Bank, or the “line of defense,” comprises several components. These include the Separation Barrier, patrol routes surrounding the main settlement blocs, roads connecting the settlements, and a military presence aimed at protecting settlers who venture beyond the main settlement blocs to establish illegal outposts.

While the Green Line is 320 kilometers long, the route of the Separation Barrier, which in many places does not follow the Green Line, extends along some 700 kilometers—more than twice the length. This disparity, which amounts to almost 400 kilometers, is in large part the result of the government’s political decision to include dozens of settlements on the western side of the barrier. Therefore, the resources that the IDF has to allocate (in terms of personnel, budget, routine engagement, etc.) are several times larger than they would have been to secure the original border, i.e., without the settlements.

Yet, the Separation Barrier is the least of the IDF’s concerns. In fact, most of Israel’s military resources go to regularly securing some 70-odd settlements that exist beyond the extended security barrier. In addition, the IDF is obliged to defend more than 90 illegal outposts—many of them established in highly vulnerable locations. In total, according to research from INSS and IDF Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom—even excluding unpaved roads in the territories and patrols along the outer boundaries of settlements—the line separating Israel from the West Bank is five times greater than it would have been without the settlements. Far from helping defend the country, the scattering of Israeli civilians throughout the West Bank now encumbers the work of security forces, drains the defense budget, and complicates IDF work by lengthening lines of defense.

The presence of Israelis living deep within the West Bank actually hinders the force’s abilities to provide the best defense possible against terrorism (in terms of overall government policy) and on the operative level (in terms of the deployment of forces).

Given the absence of an agreement with the Palestinians, the presence of annexationists within the current Israeli government, Israel’s imperative to ensure national security, and the vast majority of the Israeli public’s desire to maintain living in a democracy, a civilian withdrawal is in Israel’s best interest. As it stands, the optimal strategy to benefit Israel’s Jewish and democratic future involves disentangling Israel’s civilian presence from its military presence in the West Bank.

As it stands, the optimal strategy to benefit Israel’s Jewish and democratic future involves disentangling Israel’s civilian presence from its military presence in the West Bank.

Within this framework, out of the 500,000 settlers, constituting approximately 14% of the entire West Bank population (including Palestinians), a majority reside in what are referred to as the “settlement blocs.” These “blocs” are connected to Israel’s sovereign territory and would not necessitate evacuation. Notable among these areas are sections of Gush Etzion, the “Jerusalem envelope,” Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Zeev, and certain settlements near central Israel. Essentially, this approach ensures that 80% of the settlers can remain in their current homes while enabling Israel to establish its final border.

To accomplish this, the settlements to be relinquished from Israeli control are those deemed to pose a significant threat to national security due to their strategic location and unique legal status. In most cases, these settlements also tend to espouse more extreme ideological viewpoints and are often sources of extremist violence. Therefore, the civilian evacuation pertains to the remaining 20% of the settlers’ residences.

While it is true that the number of forces can be reduced without settlements, it is important for Israel to maintain an interim military presence in the West Bank as long as there is no stable Palestinian sovereign there. Counterterrorism missions are more efficient and easier to carry out when the IDF is regularly on the ground, instead of having to launch targeted operations or complicated raids into Palestinian territory. Keeping security in IDF hands and transferring it gradually to the Palestinians will prevent the formation of a vacuum in which the IDF is no longer fully operative but the Palestinian law enforcement agencies are not yet capable of suppressing terrorism or domestic threats.

At this point, it’s important to clarify that such a process has already proven successful in a minor, but meaningful way.

Dr Einat Wilf and Dr Shany Mor pointed to three models relating to Israeli security engagement. The first is the status quo in the West Bank, where both military and settlers remain and violence persists. Then in conjunction with the Gaza disengagement in 2005, they point to Israel’s disengagement from the Northern Samaria region. In this case, much like the detailed description above, the military remained in place to foil terrorism and settlements were evacuated. Far from the reality of the Gazan launchpad where the Israeli military was removed as part of the disengagement, the Northern Samaria model saw a rapid decrease in violence and benefits to Israel’s security for 15 years up until the point where settlers illegally moved back in, squatted and took over Palestinian property.

Here are the five principles that will guarantee Israelis’ security in the event of this evacuation model. Note that Israel conceded three of these five points in the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

—The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) will remain in place, and Israeli intelligence will continue to operate in all parts of the West Bank.

—The IDF will continue to conduct pursuits and arrests in all parts of the Palestinian autonomous area.

—Israel will retain an interim military force in the Jordan Valley.

—The airspace will remain under full Israeli control.

—The electromagnetic field will remain under full Israeli control.

This alternative course of action involves realigning the State of Israel with the tenets of the Zionist vision enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. It requires bringing a fair and efficient end to the West Bank settlement movement by establishing clear delineations for the eastern border. Such a step would ensure the continuation of a secure, democratic state, while maintaining a Jewish majority. Although negotiations with the Palestinians must remain an objective, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation fetishism of the past won’t suffice as a sole objective as long as the Israeli far-right enacts policies to create an irreversible reality on the ground by shaping the state in their image.


Samuel Hyde is a writer and a political researcher based in Tel Aviv.

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