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opinion

Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University

Political buzzwords tend to lose range of meaning pretty quickly. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, nowhere is this more true than when thinking about the West Bank settlers, that proverbial thorn in the side of the possibility of a two-state solution.

Settlements and their settlers sometimes also pose a hazard for the day-to-day life of Palestinians, who in some cases must navigate special roads as well as the circuitous route of Israel's security barrier, and contend with both permanent and "flying" checkpoints designed to keep them separate from the Jewish population. There is also, of course, the issue of occasional settler violence designed to harm and intimidate.

Yet despite the monolithic term, in motives and religious and political outlook, Israel's West Bank settlers are not homogeneous. While some are ideologically driven, others are what's known as "quality-of-life settlers," for whom the decision to move across the Green Line is primarily economic. Some of these settlers may even be ideologically opposed to the government which does so much to support the settlement enterprise – in fact, they may be settling entirely because their communities are government subsidized. By Peace Now's estimate, the Israeli government transfers 1-billion NIS ($319-million) annually to the settlements, not including the cost of security and defense. Their last report shows that in 2011, for example, settlement funding increased by 38 per cent though the settler population increased by only 5 per cent.

Consider the case of Kibbutz Kalya, 47 kilometres east of Jerusalem, whose members voted for the left in last week's Israeli election (including for the Zionist Union and Meretz) at five times the settler average. Or nearby Kibbutz Almog, which voted for the left at a rate nine times higher the settler average. I recently spoke to Gilead Paritzky, who moved to Kalya in 2010 before relocating to Jerusalem four years later for personal and professional reasons.

The first thing Gilead wanted me to know was how "testy" Kalya residents get when they are referred to as settlers. Despite the kibbutz clearly being located in the West Bank, most residents of Kalya, Gilead explained, simply don't see themselves as living in a "settlement." This is partly because, founded in 1929, destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948, and rebuilt in 1968, Kalya was an Israeli kibbutz long before the 1967 War and the ensuing notion of "occupation," and also no doubt because of wilful ignorance.

As a Labour party supporter, Gilead recalls he was initially hesitant about moving over the Green Line, but economic imperatives – in light of the "astronomical housing costs of Jerusalem," where he works – persuaded him. He recalls developing his "own kind of cognitive dissonance about it, and then accepting it."

Beyond the simple fact of contributing towards the settlement enterprise, there was also the ethical discomfort Gilead recalls feeling when it came to living in the West Bank. When Kalya ran a water park some years ago, members of the regional council would often ask the police to set up a spontaneous roadblock between the Palestinian towns and the park to turn away single, Palestinian men, the perception being that they were particularly rowdy and sexually aggressive.

(While anyone traveling from Jerusalem to Kibbutz Kalya must pass through a fortified military checkpoint, and Palestinian-plated cars are turned away, there is open access to the kibbutz from other West Bank areas, including from the nearby town of Jericho.)

And then there is Kalya's policy of requiring the cars of Palestinian contractors and tradesmen to be escorted in, and to have those workers leave their identity cards with soldiers at the front gate. On one hand, the residents feel the ongoing threat of Palestinian terrorism. On the other hand, they have become accustomed to much cheaper Palestinian labour.

With the two-state solution being the only one that has ever been taken seriously by a majority of Israelis, Palestinians and their respective leaders, settlers know that the roughly 100,000 of them who live outside of the major settlement blocs will likely have to relocate across the Green Line in the event of a peace agreement.

So why do residents of Kalya and Almog find themselves voting for Labour and Meretz – parties that are more likely to sue for peace – at rates far surpassing the average settler vote, knowing full well that it is their settlements that would be on the chopping block in the event of an agreement?

Gilead has an explanation. While as a Kalya resident he would gladly have accepted the government's compensation package and moved back across the Green Line if that were to have happened, he believes that at this point it's almost a purely hypothetical scenario. As Gilead describes the Hebrew expression common among Israelis, "No one sees an agreement coming to fruition between today and tomorrow."