In the spring of 1968, a rabbi named Moshe Levinger requested permission from the Israeli government to spend the week of Passover with 40 or so of his followers in Hebron, newly acquired by Israel through its victory in the 1967 War with Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The group rented rooms in the Park Hotel, held their Seder and then stayed; Levinger sent a note to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s Labor-led government announcing that approximately 30 families would be settling the “lands of their forefathers.” Caught off guard, the Israeli government moved the “settlers” to the Hebron military base for protection and eventually granted them permission to create a Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Hebron, in a move that then-Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan labeled “blackmail.” Called Kiryat Arba, another name for Hebron in the Bible, Israel’s first government-sanctioned West Bank settlement was born.
Levinger’s move led to the 1974 creation of Gush Emunim or “Bloc of the Faithful,” a movement founded by students of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. Kook and Gush Emunim’s other leaders believed that territory won in the Six-Day War had been brought into Israel’s hands for a purpose: to settle the bibilical homeland with Jews returning from the Diaspora, which would, in turn, hasten the coming of the Messiah.
That some of these territories—such as the West Bank and Gaza—were inhabited by more than a million Palestinians was viewed by Gush Emunim as a temporary, even irrelevant, state of affairs: The local Arabs would leave, be absorbed, or be outnumbered, much as they had been prior to 1948. Regardless, withdrawing from the territory was unconscionable, and settling it was declared a national duty, Israel’s own Manifest Destiny.
In 1980, Yesha was established as the practical arm of the settler movement, which was closely identified with the dati leumi [religious Zionism] movement—an Israeli hybrid of modern Orthodoxy with right-wing Zionism. Yesha—which redefined Gush Emunim’s goals in secular, political language—aimed to reposition the movement as one guided by hawkish realism rather than religious duty. Yesha attracted secular as well as religious Israelis, although most of its leaders have been religious.
Its founding coincided with the first right-wing government in Israel’s history. Between 1977 and 1983, Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s administration considered settlement expansion a kind of raison d’être. According to one U.N. report, Begin pledged in 1981 “that as long as I serve the nation as prime minister, we shall not abandon any area in the territories of Judea, Samaria, the Gaza District and the Golan Heights.” Indeed, his support was not just lip service; funds flowed to establish new settlements and existing ones were expanded.
In 1984, the new National Unity government led by the Labor Party’s Shimon Peres reversed course, announcing a freeze on all new settlement activity. Nevertheless, expansion continued unabated: By the end of 1985, the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza stood at 42,000, a 100 percent increase from just two years earlier. Growth continued, even under the administrations of subsequent Labor-led governments, in large part because Israeli leaders are forced to make deals with parties supporting the settlers in order to forge coalitions.