Am I the only Israeli who’s getting sick of hearing about how wonderful the Gaza Strip settlers were? I have no problem thinking of them as nice people, good Israelis, good Zionists, or whatever; but the extent to which they’re being portrayed as heroic, pioneering agricultural miracle-workers is frankly nauseating.
Both before and since the Disengagement, we have been told that the settler-farmers “made the desert bloom”, created substantial export earnings for Israel, and so on. We have also been told how they had created thousands of jobs for Gaza Strip Palestinians who worked in the settlers’ greenhouses, with the implication that the Palestinians should have loved the settlers as much as we’ve been told we should love them. Strangely – or not – the anti-Disengagement types never seem to put these two sets of facts together.
“Making the Desert Bloom”
Let’s look for a bit at what “making the desert bloom” is all about. What do you need to be a miracle-working Gaza Strip vegetable farmer? First, there’s land. The Gaza Strip settlers were allocated land at advantageous prices – certainly at prices lower than they would have paid for equivalent land inside the Green Line. Then there’s capital – money to pay for greenhouses, irrigation systems, and so on. The Gaza Strip settlers appear to have had no problem with this – after all, they constituted an outpost of a comparatively wealthy society. Next, sunlight. No problem there – sunlight is one of the Middle East’s most plentiful natural resources. Water? The settlers were connected to the Israeli water system; they drew some water from the Gaza Strip’s section of the Coastal Aquifer, but also got about half of their water piped in from “Israel proper”. Like other Israeli farmers, they got their water at a subsidized price; I don’t know whether they paid less than farmers inside the Green Line pay, but they certainly paid less than Israeli domestic customers do.
What’s left? Expertise and labor. The settlers obviously knew (or learned) what they were doing; given that Israel has a great deal of agricultural sophistication, this is hardly surprising. But while there is every reason to believe that those former Gaza Strip farmers who wish to set up shop inside the Green Line will succeed in their endeavors, there is no reason to believe that their knowledge and competence are anything beyond what is usual among their non-settler peers. And “miracles” aside, it’s hard for me to believe that Palestinian farmers, given equal access to water and financing (and maybe some additional training), couldn’t be just as successful as the settler farmers were – after all, Palestinians were already doing most of the hands-on work.
Labor presents some interesting issues. The Gaza settlers’ farms were rather labor-intensive operations, employing thousands of Palestinian laborers. According to newspaper reports, these laborers were paid something like one third of the Israeli minimum wage – call it roughly 50 shekels per day (with no paid vacation or sick days), compared to about 150 shekels per day inside Israel. Some of the farmers claimed to pay more than that; to be very generous, let’s say that the average was 75 shekels per day. This means that for each worker employed, the farmer was saving 75 shekels (NIS 150 – NIS 75) per day, times 250 working days per year, for a total of 18,750 shekels (the equivalent of about $4200). If we multiply this by 4000 workers, we come up with a total savings of some $16.8 million per year in labor costs – and remember, this is using very conservative assumptions.
Of course, compared to normal Palestinian wages in the Gaza Strip, the wages paid by the settlers were pretty good – even if we take the lower value of 50 shekels per day. On the other hand, the settlers were legally obligated to pay the Israeli minimum wage; even though this law has never been adequately enforced across the Green Line, it does apply. Let’s call this one a draw: the farmers certainly got their labor at a much cheaper price than they would have paid inside the Green Line, but I find it hard to blame them for doing so if the salaries they paid were fair by local standards.
What’s the bottom line? The Gaza Strip settler-farmers were not mythical heroic pioneers, achieving miracles by the sweat of their brow and the power of their faith. They were smart businessmen making a good profit out of heavy subsidies. I don’t think there’s anything especially wrong with this – I’m a good capitalist, despite my overdraft – but I find it very hard to think of people like this as saintly pioneers.
I have no problem with the Gaza Strip settlers – really, I don’t. They took advantage of a profitable situation, as businessmen are supposed to do. What bugs me is that I’m not being allowed to think of them as ordinary, hard-working, opportunistic-but-basically-honest businessmen; I’m constantly being told that I must think of them as the best farmers, the best Zionists, the best Jews, and now the most victimized people on the planet. This attitude, I think – and it’s one that substantially predates the Disengagement – is the Achilles’ heel of the settler movement. Just as many Israelis dislike and distrust the “left-wing elite” because they (more or less correctly) perceive Yossi Beilin and his ilk as snobby elitists who think they know better than everyone else, a lot of us are learning to dislike those on the messianic Right who seem to feel they have a monopoly on virtue, patriotism, and now on suffering as well. If the settler movement wants to avoid (or minimize) Disengagement II, they had better stop feeling so superior – or at least learn to keep their feelings to themselves.