Prof. Assaf Sharon
Co-founder and senior fellow
03.05.2022 by Dr. Avner Inbar
03.05.2022 Research

Nonviolent civil evacuation: Rethinking an end to Israel’s settlements in the West Bank

After more than half a century of holding the West Bank under military occupation, Israelis are still divided over its future. Most support withdrawal as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel’s most important allies - and the international community as a whole - agree that the settlements are unlawful and must be removed. In such circumstances, there is no cause to believe that the land can no longer be divided. Taking a real look at what allows the settlements to keep going, instead of bowing to the myth of violent evacuation, reveals that the future of the West Bank and the settlements is in the hands of the Israeli public and its leaders. Where there is a will - there is a readily-available way.

Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are the single greatest obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. For decades, opponents of a peaceful agreement have disavowed the territorial nature of the conflict and denied the key role of the settlements in preventing a compromise. Surprisingly, they have been joined over time by Israelis who support an agreement but, for practical or ideological reasons, have come to view the settlements as a fait accompli. However, coming to terms with the settlements means accepting that the violent conflict will continue – whether in the form of ongoing military occupation or when a civil war breaks out after the West Bank is annexed to Israel.

Although the State of Israel actively supported the establishment and growth of the settlements, they are still championed primarily by a small sector of society whose messianic vision is not shared by the vast majority of Israelis. Nevertheless, many Israelis have grown willing to accept the settlements, despite the price, thanks to the mythology that has sprung up around them. This paper unpacks two of these myths:

  1. Irreversibility - the Jewish settlement project in the West Bank has gone beyond the point of no return, and therefore the settlements can no longer be evacuated.
  2. Risk of confrontation - evacuating the settlements would necessarily entail a violent clash between state and settlers, which may escalate into civil war.

The two myths are intertwined: those who oppose territorial compromise believe that a major reason the settlements cannot be evacuated is that any evacuation will lead to a major clash between the parties. This study refutes the myth of irreversibility regarding the settlements and proposes a practical approach to evacuating them: nonviolent civil evacuation. We propose that the accepted model, of employing military force to evacuate settlers, be replaced by use of civil powers - i.e., relying on the state’s administrative, financial and legal capabilities. Our approach is based on recognizing the fragility of the settlements. These communities, artificially scattered throughout hostile territory for political reasons, have failed to fulfill their three main goals: 1) changing the legal status of the West Bank; 2) achieving economic independence; and 3) convincing the general public to oppose partition of the land into two states. Given these fundamental failures, we argue not only that the settlements can be evacuated - but this can be done without catapulting Israel into a domestic crisis.

The first part of the paper provides a theoretical analysis of the question of partition. We refute the idea that the settlements are irreversible, showing the flawed empirical assumptions and distorted reading of political reality underlying it. Partition has been a key issue for Zionism from the outset, and the major dividing line in Israeli politics since the 1967 war. The argument that the settlements have gone beyond the point of no return is hardly new, either. It first emerged in the 1980s and has since gained traction in Israeli, Palestinian and international public opinion. Although this vociferous argument is the result of political despair rather than of logical reasoning, it has strongly impacted public opinion regarding possible solutions to the conflict.

Partition skeptics argue that the main reason the settlements cannot be evacuated is the size of their population. The truth is that the actual number of settlers is not necessarily related to whether or not they can be evacuated. However, since this argument has been made in public, it should be debated based on figures and facts. In 2021, there were approximately 660,000 Israelis living in the West Bank. Of these, some 220,000 live in East Jerusalem and its environs and would not be candidates for evacuation in a peace agreement. Of the remaining 440,000 - who make up only 14% of the West Bank population - most live in what are known as the “settlement blocs”. These areas are adjoined to Israel’s sovereign territory and would not be up for evacuation, either. This leaves the number of settlers who would have to leave their homes at 115,000 to 175,000. In other words, about 80% of Jewish settlers in the West Bank would stay in their homes under a future agreement. While the remaining 20% make up more than the number of settlers evacuated from Gaza in 2005, comparing evacuation from the West Bank with the disengagement from Gaza is only relevant if the same evacuation measures are used in both cases.

Beyond the demographic debate, an economic and legal analysis reveals that the settlement enterprise is much more vulnerable than commonly believed. The early settlers understood this and noted openly that establishing settlements would not create an irreversible reality. Over years, the settlers’ leaders have stressed that their project will survive only if they manage to “settle in the hearts”– i.e., win the public over to their cause. In that mission, they have undoubtedly failed. Although the settlements are being increasingly normalized in Israeli discourse, the messianic vision that fuels them is still confined to a sub-section of religious Zionism (10% of Israelis, at most).

While the settler lobby skillfully leverages political power to shape government policy and seize surplus funding, these temporary gains have not made inroads into mainstream Israeli opinion on the settlements. A broad public survey commissioned for this study found that Israelis are somewhat sympathetic to the settlers and their cause, and that the settlement movement has managed to cement the myth that Jewish presence in the West Bank is good for national security. It also found that nevertheless, most Israelis still believe the evacuation of settlements is a legitimate way to establish Israel’s borders, whether unilaterally or as part of a peace deal. The settlers learned this painful lesson in the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, when the general public remained indifferent to their protestations.

Although the settlement enterprise is widely viewed in Israel as a success story, the truth is that after more than half a century, it has failed to attain economic independence and prosper. Most settlers depend entirely on urban hubs within Israel to run their daily lives, and their communities function merely as “bedroom communities”. The organic employment that does exist within settlements is largely provided by regional councils and local educational institutes, which enjoy special government funding. The entire settlement project relies heavily on the state, which keeps it on financial “life support”. While this fact is lacking from public debate, it means that the government has much more power over the settlements than is commonly assumed. Therefore, we argue, the government does not have to deploy military or police force to evacuate settlements - but only to leverage their absolute dependence. Without the state’s massive, ongoing support in all areas - financial support, military protection, legal shields and civilian services-  the settlements in the West Bank are not only reversible, but unsustainable. Legally, the settlements exist thanks to a convoluted system of laws and regulations tailored to fit the needs of Israeli citizens living outside the country’s sovereign territory. Although the end goal of the settler movement has always been to extend Israeli law over the entire West Bank, the state has never annexed this territory and its laws do not apply there. A plethora of specialized legislation and administrative-military orders render the settlers equal in legal status to citizens living within Israel. The difference between an Israeli living in Hebron and an Israeli living in Berlin or Miami is a handful of legal acrobatics that can be cancelled with surprising ease. Here, too, the popular image is far from reality: not only can the state evacuate the settlements, it would only take a simple decision to do so.

All this leads to one clear conclusion: the settlements can be evacuated. Population size is not an obstacle, despite claims to that effect, given the financial feebleness of the settlement enterprise and its complete reliance on government funding. Due to this dependence, any future government will be able to quickly reduce the number of people living in settlements, as a first step towards full evacuation. Moreover, due to the exceptional legal status of the settlements, the government can destabilize the settlers’ relatively normal way of life to the point of making it undesirable. The government actually has ample, effective means at its disposal to evacuate settlements.

Therefore, the relevant question becomes not whether settlements can be evacuated, but how. The second part of the paper discusses practical aspects of this question and proposes a new approach: nonviolent civilian evacuation of settlements. Adopting this approach would mean a new government policy that reflects a change in national priorities and relies on the state’s administrative abilities rather than on military force.

There are three options for the future of the settlements once Israel signs an agreement with the Palestinians to evacuate them. One is evacuation by force, like the withdrawals from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. In that scenario, the government would set a single date on which all preparation, energy and public attention would focus; meanwhile, opponents of the evacuation would respond in a variety of ways, ranging from lack of cooperation to passive resistance and even violent protest. Despite the many disadvantages of this approach, the government may well choose it again in future.

The second option is to leave the settlements in place within the Palestinian state, based on a pre-agreed outline. With Trump’s “deal of the century” off the cards, this scenario no longer seems realistic. Neither Israel, the Palestinians, nor most of the settlers would want to leave settlements within the Palestinian territory once an agreemet is signed.

As the first option (forced evacuation) is problematic and the second (leaving the settlements in place) is unrealistic, there is a need to lay out the principles of a third option: nonviolent civil evacuation, which can bring an efficient and fair end to the settlement enterprise. This option would utilize the state’s capacity for organization, cutting the settlements off from their financial life support in an orderly, controlled fashion. We argue that the evacuation does not have to be rushed, thereby backing the settlers into a corner. On the contrary: that would cause unnecessary friction and spur violence that would do a disservice to both the settlers and the state.

Carrying out a peace agreement will take more than a few days - it will take several years, estimated at anywhere from five to fifteen. The state will have ample time to prepare for the complicated tasks it will face, chiefly laying the groundwork for absorbing the evacuated settlers within its territory: preparing land for construction, farmland, community frameworks, schools and preschools, jobs, a mental health support system and more. Once the conditions are in place for signing an agreement, the government will be able to move on to the next stage of nonviolent evacuation: starting the civil process, which is essentially bureaucratic. This process will include: gradually scaling back the state’s special grants and subsidies to the settlements until they are entirely cancelled, while offering benefits from the beginning to settlers who agree to leave of their own accord; cancelling the orders and specialized legislation that apply to Israeli citizens in the West Bank; preparing physical infrastructure at the designated sites for relocation within Israel; and finally, redeploying the IDF along the new border.

How and in what order these stages will be carried out will depend on the needs and abilities of the state. Its key aims will be to soften the blow of evacuation, to ensure the evacuees “land on their feet”, and to spread the process out over time. Unlike the withdrawals from the Sinai and from Gaza, the government will not set a single date for the entire evacuation. Instead, the evacuation will be carried out in prescheduled stages, and settlers will be encouraged to leave willingly with optimal support by state institutions. Public opinion surveys in the past have found that many settlers will cooperate with such a policy and agree to leave in advance - both because some of them did not move to the West Bank for ideological reasons, and because most are law-abiding citizens. If the circumstances allow for Israel and the Palestinians to sign an agreement, the public mood is likely to be different from what it is today; the settlers may very well come under public pressure to leave willingly, and those who do so will receive sympathy and support.

What if the evacuees resist? The images of settlers barricading themselves on rooftops in the Sinai settlement of Yamit in 1982 and in the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom in 2005 have become a powerful collective memory for Israelis - thanks to active efforts by the settler movement to turn the evacuees’ pain into a national trauma. As a result, although resistance on the ground did not put a major dent in either evacuation, fear of a violent confrontation between Israeli civilians and uniformed forces continues to feed the public imagination.

This fear continues to inform the myth that the settlements cannot be evacuated. In reality, the state and the settlers share an interest in generating such heartrending scene. Both parties wish, each for their own reasons, to turn the evacuation of settlements into a visual drama and sell it to the public as such. There is no real need for evacuation to take such a drastic form. Civilians do not have to be evacuated within the space of a few highly televised, sensationalist moments that generate rating - and great potential for conflict. By managing the withdrawal as a staggered process, the state can avoid many of the flaws that marred previous evacuations. An evacuation based on civil and administrative measures rather than military might is not only more likely to succeed - it is also more ethical towards the settlers and healthier for Israeli society as a whole.

Clearly, this step would meet with resistance, some of it aggressive, by extremists. It is hard to assess whether they are in the hundreds or thousands, but some will undoubtedly refuse to leave. It is this group that the public fears. Indeed, the threat of civil war - sometimes issued explicitly, at other times implied - is a major strategic success of the settler movement in its battle over public opinion. Yet while foreseeable extremist resistance should not be taken lightly, it should also not be blown out of proportion. The opposition these settlers would put up may be a hindrance, but would not prevent the evacuation.

Historical experience around the world offers similar conclusions. The French withdrawal from Algeria (which is the most similar example to the Israeli case), and to a lesser degree Britain’s withdrawal from Hong Kong and Portugal’s withdrawal from Macau, were all carried out gradually and without unusual violence. These cases show that the most efficient way to execute a broad evacuation of civilians is to set a series of clear administrative deadlines. In Israel, the settlements’ utter dependence on the state will enable the government to carry out the evacuation along two simultaneous avenues: preparing to absorb the settlers within the country, while gradually ending the settlement enterprise within the future Palestinian state. This kind of evacuation will not be carried out as a rushed emergency mission that turns into a fiasco, leaving trauma and scars in its wake.

While the idea of evacuating settlements from the West Bank is hypothetical at present, one thing is clear: avoiding a discussion of its practicalities serves opponents of the two-state solution. In fact, questioning whether evacuation is even possible is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more Israelis come to believe the settlements are irreversible, the lower the chances of the two-state solution coming to fruition. Yet despite skepticism on the right and left, two states remain the only viable way to resolve the conflict without violence.

As this solution cannot be achieved without evacuating settlements, failing to discuss the best ways to do so plays into the hands of the opposition and amplifies the impact of the conflict on victims from both sides. Moreover, as the state commission of inquiry that examined the treatment of settlers evacuated from Gaza showed, many of the flaws in the 2005 disengagement were the result of hasty planning and execution. Organized planning in advance is therefore key to the success of a future evacuation.

To conclude: evacuating settlements is not only possible but necessary, and can be carried out using nonviolent civilian measures, based on the state’s administrative abilities. This radically different approach to handling the challenges of evacuation may lead the public to reassess the chances of fulfilling the two-state solution.

This paper does not provide a full, detailed program for civil evacuation. It lays the foundations for a new kind of discussion about evacuating settlements. Our main goal is to push the conceptual boundaries of public debate on the issue, and to enrich the political imagination of two-state supporters when it comes to the settlements. Using the general outline proposed here to develop a full-fledged plan is a key mission of two-staters in the coming years.

Read the full report here.

Share article
Files to download