Haaretz recently reported that former settlers from Elei Sinai in the Gaza Strip are demanding beachfront properties worth $240,000 to $300,000 (for the land alone, if I understood the article correctly) as part of their compensation for being evicted from their former homes. The former settlers want to live together by the ocean somewhere along Israel’s Mediterranean coast south of Tel Aviv, basically reproducing the lifestyle they enjoyed back in the Strip – minus the mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades, of course. The $50,000-per-family land-purchase allowance provided by the Evacuation Compensation Law won’t come close to paying for what they want, and these ex-settlers are prepared to go to extremes – they’ve even hired a publicist! – to force the government to see things their way.
The acrimonious dispute between these ex-settlers and the Israeli government exemplifies an important part of the debate about the recent Disengagement – an issue that will become even more fraught when Israel undertakes future unilateral or negotiated withdrawals: What exactly is the standard for determining how much compensation is appropriate when settlers are forced to leave their homes? (A completely separate issue, of course, is whether the compensation that has been legislated for the evacuees is being efficiently and fairly distributed; for now I am going to deal only with the statutory level of compensation, not with how the compensation system is being administered.)
Those who believe that the compensation being offered to former Gaza Strip settlers is inadequate – and they appear to be almost entirely people who opposed the Disengagement in the first place – apparently feel that relocated settlers should be at least as well situated after their relocation as they were before. According to this view, ex-settlers should be able to enjoy the same comforts and perquisites they enjoyed before they were evacuated; so if a settlement was on the beach, its residents are entitled to receive beachfront housing to replace what they lost, and if a family had a 300-square-meter (3200-square-foot) house, they are entitled to receive a house just as large and luxurious.
Despite the fact that I am a settler – and thus, at least potentially, a future evacuee – I believe that this lifestyle-replacement standard for compensation is fundamentally flawed.
Getting the Rights Right
I’ll use my own family’s situation as an illustrative example: In late 1999, we were living in a rented apartment in Ra’anana, and we knew that in a few months the owner was returning from abroad and we would have to find a new place to live. We wanted someplace with enough bedrooms for our three daughters not to have to double up; we also wanted someplace that was cat-friendly, meaning that a large assortment of ferocious little fanged carnivores could happily take advantage of our largesse without running too great a risk of being run over by maniacal Israeli drivers. Add to that the usual factors: decent schools, not too bad a commute, general gemütlichkeit, and so on.
It quickly became clear that nothing within our price range would satisfy all these requirements; in fact, we couldn’t come close. After some weeks of hunting, we decided to broaden our horizons and investigate our options across the Green Line. After various irrelevant adventures, we finally bought a house in Alfei Menashe, a medium-large, basically non-political settlement just over the Green Line; our house had (and still has) seven rooms, and sits on half a dunam (1/8 acre) of land. We quite like it, and wouldn’t be at all happy about having to leave.
So what are our rights should some future government decide to “disengage” from Alfei Menashe? In 1999 we clearly had no right to live in a seven-room house on half a dunam in “Israel proper” within easy commuting distance of Tel Aviv – not if we didn’t have the money for it! Now we do live in such a house, but in the Territories, and subject to the risk of relocation. Should the government decide to evacuate us, do we have a right to seven-rooms-and-half-a-dunam back inside the Green Line? If we do, how exactly did we acquire the right to live a post-settler lifestyle that we couldn’t afford before we moved to a settlement?
I would like to think that everyone is entitled to some kind of appropriate housing as a “universal” human right; although I’m not sure that I’m on firm legalistic ground here, I believe that nobody should have to be homeless. But at the same time, it’s pretty clear that even if everyone is entitled to a roof over his head, this right doesn’t extend to luxury housing. We might not have enough closet space, but our house is certainly more than our “human rights” entitle us to! If the Israeli government had forced us to live in a settlement, I suppose we could claim that we deserved some extra compensation for the years we’d passed in durance vile; but like our fellow settlers, we moved to the Territories of our own free will.
It seems reasonable to me for the government to compensate settlers for the money they spent on buying and improving their property (adjusted for inflation, of course), plus moving expenses, perhaps plus some small additional amounts for factors such as emotional trauma. But I’m not convinced that the government owes settlers a duplication of their settlement lifestyle inside the Green Line. Should we be “disengaged” from our home, I would think that the correct goal of compensation would be to restore us more or less to the position we were in before we moved to Alfei Menashe; but I don’t really see why we should be better off as former settlers than we were as a pre-settlers.
Of course, if we’d saved money in the intervening years, or improved our income level, we might be in better shape than we were before becoming settlers; interesting notion, that. Perhaps we should try doing so, just in case!