Friday, 31 January 2014

Israeli Settlers: Motivated by Ideology or Dollars and Cents?

If you follow the saga that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then you know that one of the longstanding issues of the conflict is the fate of the communities that Israel has built in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.  As we all know, Israel unilaterally evacuated all of its citizens from the Gaza Strip in 2005.  But there are still hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in the West Bank and the Palestinians want them out, too.  

The image that the media, including Israel's own press, likes to paint of these people is usually one of religious fanatics - men with knitted kipot, long beards and side-locks; very conservatively-dressed women and young families with many children who want nothing more than to cleanse the entire Arab population from the Land of Israel from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea.  The media also likes to paint these people as foreign colonists, so whenever they report from a Jewish community in the so-called occupied territories, they usually pick out the first person they can find who has an American accent and seems as if he or she just got off the plane from New York.  Indeed, the English-speaking press uses the term, "settler", to imply that Jews who live in the West Bank, or who used to live in the Gaza Strip, are not native to the land and are just like the first European settlers who went on to found the United States and Canada.  As usual, when it comes to anything to do with Israel, the Palestinians, or the Middle East, the media just doesn't get it.  For one thing, they automatically assume that Israelis who live in the West Bank are there because they see living there as the fulfillment of a Biblical promise to restore the lands of Judea and Samaria to the Jewish people.  But this is not the case with many if not most so-called settlers.

Contrary to media stereotypes, most of the Israelis who live in the West Bank are not religious fanatics bent on driving out the Palestinians.  In fact, many of them are living there, not for religious reasons, but for economic ones.  It's simply a matter of what kind of lifestyle a family wants to have or can afford.  Take, for example, the housing market in our own Greater Toronto Area.  If you are at all familiar with housing trends in the GTA, you know that prices in Toronto have skyrocketed over the last few years, so the closer to downtown you want to be, the more you'll have to shell out to buy a home.  If you want to live downtown, chances are that you'll be living in a condo that feels more like a shoebox - not very practical if you're planning on raising a family.  So what's the alternative for those of us who want a single family home but aren't multimillionaires?  Suburbia, of course, which in the GTA used to mean places like North York, Etobicoke or Scarborough - but not anymore.  Now, what we call suburbia is more like York Region, Mississauga or Brampton.

These housing market trends have also made their way to Israel.  Where it was once possible for an average Israeli family to own a home in established neighbourhoods in cities like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, it is now no longer affordable.  Hence, for Israeli citizens hoping to raise a family, the only alternative has been to migrate to more peripheral communities.  But just as North York and Etobicoke became increasingly unaffordable, so too did cities like the Tel Aviv suburb of Raanana and the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion.  Now, with most established communities out of reach, the newer communities in places like Ariel and Gush Etzion, both located in the West Bank, are looking more and more attractive, not to mention the fact that since 1967, successive Israeli governments have used various financial incentives to encourage Israeli citizens to move to new towns and villages in the West Bank.  Many of these new towns and villages sport the same kind of urban landscape that you would find in Thornhill, Mississauga or any other suburb of Toronto - nice, big single-family homes with private driveways and backyards - perfect for a young couple looking to settle down and raise a family.

Yes, there are folks within the Israeli settlement population that see living in the West Bank as their Biblical birthright and who do not want to share the land with their Palestinian neighbours, but they are the minority, NOT the majority.  Hence, I don't see any reason why the media should present these people to their audience any differently than they would present an average Toronto family that chooses to move to Thornhill to get more house for less money.    

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