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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 August 2005, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
Uncertain future for settler movement
By Richard Miron
BBC Middle East correspondent

On the face of it the Jewish settler movement faces its biggest crisis since it began establishing communities in the West Bank and Gaza in the wake of the 1967 Arab Israeli war.

Gaza withdrawal protest
After 38 years of occupation settlers are preparing to leave

Judged illegal by the international community the settlements were able to win support of successive Israeli governments - both Likud and Labour.

Subsidies and concessions were offered to people to live on hilltops in the West Bank and sand dunes in Gaza.

Ariel Sharon, now described by the far right in Israel as the destroyer of the settlements, was once the movement's greatest patron. He cited security as the compelling reason to send Jews to live on occupied land.

The settlers themselves looked to the Bible as justification.

Dissipated support

Ariel's Sharon's decision to evacuate Gaza shows how far the settler movement has moved from its leading position in Israeli politics to the fringes.

Once the settlements were considered an asset; 'facts on the ground' which would act as defensive positions for Israel.

Now some Israelis see them as a burden, requiring intensive military support to continue to exist.

They have also dissipated international support for the Jewish state and a cause for conflict with the Palestinians.

Against this background, the settlement movement was unable to stop the Prime Minister's plan for Gaza - and crucially failed to win the active support of many people even on the right wing in Israel.

Israeli PM Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon was a strong advocate of settlements on security grounds

But the loss of Gaza does not mean that the settlers are powerless or indeed that a similar scenario might unfold elsewhere.

The West Bank and East Jerusalem contain hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers is regarded as far more important to Israelis strategically and ideologically.

The hills of the West Bank overlook Israel's main population centres, and it is seen by many as the birthplace of the Jewish faith.

Face to face

The main leadership of the settlement movement, represented by the Yesha settlers' council, understood some time ago that it was likely to lose Gaza.

But it sought throughout the last year to explain its arguments in favour of continuing and indeed strengthening the settlements in the West Bank.

It has launched a campaign called 'Face to Face' - to go into different villages, towns and cities throughout Israel in order to influence public opinion.

The consequences for the settler movement and its supporters in Israel in the wake of the Gaza withdrawal will be deeply felt.

Some commentators have suggested that some sections of the nationalistic religious right wing might 'disengage' from mainstream Israeli life; reject army service and the symbols of modern Israeli statehood.

Uncertain future

But the withdrawal could by contrast energise the settler movement in an effort to regain its seat in the inner circle of Israeli politics.

It does seem certain though that the Gaza withdrawal will radically alter the Israeli political map - from right to left.

For over three decades the settler movement has been on the offensive establishing communities in the occupied territories according to its will, leading the political agenda. Now it is on the defensive, knowing that it will have to fight hard to achieve its aims.

Ariel Sharon - once the father of the settler movement - has overseen a move that has cast his offspring into an uncertain future.


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