By Joel Abramson
Looking at maps of settlements in the West Bank, and reading polemics by Palestinians and pundits, one could be excused for thinking the West Bank has been taken over by Israeli zealots whose settlements leave too little land for an eventual Palestinian State to be viable.
I’ve had the privilege of being flown all over the West Bank -- once with Doris with an IDF intelligence officer in a small Israeli Air Force plane -- and another time in a Beechcraft two-seater, courtesy of Honest Reporting, the media-monitoring organization. Both times I was greatly surprised to see that most of the land was just open space. How are we to square that with the impression we are given that settlers are seizing all the land?
Well, the fact is that the area taken up by settlements is actually only about 1.7% of the total. That estimate is made by B’Tselem, an Israeli civil rights group that is harshly critical of Israeli policy. Another estimate, made by Peace Now, an Israeli organization vigorously opposed to all settlements, is only 1.36%. The figures differ because B’Tselem includes roads and land between settlements. In both scenarios, settlements actually take up a very small percentage of the West Bank. So when we hear settlements described as the major obstacle to a peace agreement we need to wonder.
However, when perceptions are hyped up, they tend to take on a reality of their own.
Let’s examine some diplomatic and legal aspects of the Settlements Issue. We hear over and over that settlements are illegal; so often that many accept it as fact. The last binding international legal document which divided the territory in the region that we now know as Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, dates back to the League of Nations Mandate of June 1922, which explicitly recognized the right of Jewish settlement in ALL territory allocated to the Jewish national home in the British Mandate. Under International Law, these rights under the League are still preserved by its successor organization, the United Nations, under Chapter XII of its charter. Go to Google and read it for yourself.
It must be remembered that Israel won the West Bank from Jordan, not from the Palestinians, in a defensive war in 1967. Jordan in turn had seized the West Bank illegally in an aggressive war it started in 1948, when it attacked the newly independent state of Israel. In fact, there was no Palestinian entity at the time, and Jordan’s occupation was never recognized by the international community, with the exception of Britain and Pakistan.
Another claim of illegality is that settlements violate the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention. But that deals with “mass forcible transfers” of protected persons from occupied territories, and prohibits deporting or transferring parts of its own population into territory it occupies. But forced transfers never took place. Eminent legal authorities such as Morris Abram have held that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to this issue.
Other legal authorities, such as Eugene Rostow, a former Dean of Yale Law School and Undersecretary of State under President Johnson, and Stephen Schwebel, a legal advisor to the State Department and later President of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, have held that Israel has an unassailable right to establish settlements in the West Bank, and that Israel’s claims to the territory captured in a defensive war are better than those of Jordan or Egypt . History (including American history) abounds with examples of keeping territory acquired in war.
Others claim that UN Resolution 242 supersedes prior law. They claim that 242 requires Israel to withdraw to the pre 1967 borders. That really means the 1949 cease fire lines at the end of Israel’s War for Independence. This, too, had been a defensive war. Those lines were not borders. They were truce lines. But UN 242 does not say Israel must withdraw from ALL territory it captured in the 1967 war. It says it must withdraw from TERRITORY it captured. This, Israel has done. Justice Arthur Goldberg, who negotiated UN 242, has explained that omission of the word ALL was deliberate and had been carefully negotiated. Further, UN 242 calls for Israel to withdraw behind defensible borders. This is a crucial phrase for a country as small as Israel, where TelAviv, for example, is a scant 9 miles from the West Bank.
Opponents of settlements often describe them as having been declared illegal by the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords. To the contrary, the accords do no such thing. Don’t take anybody’s word for it, ask Google and read the actual documents for yourself.
It’s interesting to note that it was not until the Carter administration that a State Department legal advisor expressed the view that settlements violated international law. But the Carter policy was reversed by all succeeding administrations until now, and I’ll discuss the Obama policy shortly.
I don’t believe settlements violate international law. But the question remains, are they really the - or even an - obstacle to peace?
Prior to 1967 there was not one single settlement, but there was war and terror. From 1949 to 1967 Jews were forbidden to live in the
West Bank, but still the Arabs refused to make peace.
Then, in 1994, Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel and settlements were not an issue. So what is the basis for saying settlements stand in the way?
In 2005, Israel made the agonizing decision to unilaterally disengage from Gaza. It was a risky, wrenching decision. Israeli settlements had developed a thriving greenhouse agribusiness of growing and exporting fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers. Thousands of jobs were created for Palestinian workers. The decision to disengage alienated the more than 8,000 settlers and profoundly upset much of the population in Israel proper. After all, they had been there for 38 years and it was the only home their children knew. All Israelis in Gaza, including those buried there, were removed, some forcibly, by the IDF. Instead of peace, the disengagement brought violence. The Palestinians destroyed the greenhouses, and with them thousands of their own jobs. Gaza became a launching pad for thousands of rockets relentlessly fired into Israeli cities over the following years. Removing settlements was a devastating setback to the cause of peace.
In the West Bank, Palestinians say settlements and their connecting roads create Bantustans that prevent Palestinians from having a contiguous state of their own. But the big settlements, such as Ma’ale Adummim are really suburbs of Jerusalem and are basically contiguous to Israel proper.
Time and again, Israel has offered to withdraw from most of the West Bank. Figures vary, but percentagewise it is estimated that it would give up 97% of the land. Further, Israel has offered to swap other land from within the Green Line in compensation. All these offers have been flatly rejected, never with a counter offer, and sometimes with extended murderous violence.
It is easy to find many major obstacles to a peace agreement, other than Israeli settlements, but they are beyond the purview of today’s discussion. How then do we explain President Obama’s policies toward Israel? I find them puzzling. In Cairo on June 4 this year he stated, "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "He wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth' exceptions." This harsh language contradicts the policies of every administration except that of Jimmy Carter.
Israelis really resented being told no natural growth exceptions. Most people do see a problem in expanding the areas of settlements and expropriating more real estate. They don’t see a problem in building upward, within existing boundaries. Families grow. Children marry, have babies. They want their own apartments. What’s the harm in building an extension to a house or more floors to an existing building? As long as the geography of an existing settlement is no greater, one is left to wonder how that harms the Palestinian cause. Thus it was seen as a gratuitous slap at Israeli civil rights and an unnecessary intrusion into Israel’s internal affairs.
Indeed, according to a recent poll commissioned by The Jerusalem Post, Israeli perceptions of President Barack Obama's administration as "pro-Israel" have dropped precipitously. Only 6 percent of Jewish Israeli respondents believe the Obama administration is pro-Israel.
Many analysts attribute the plunging Israeli perception of the president's policies to his call for Israel to stop all construction in Jewish West Bank settlements, including allowances for natural growth of the population. By a firm majority, Israeli Jews support the dismantling of outposts their government has deemed illegal.
But when it comes to halting construction in large settlement blocs such as Ma'ale Adumim and Gush Etzion just outside Jerusalem, and Ariel in Samaria, 69 percent of those surveyed oppose a construction freeze.
This is alarming the supporters of the alliance between the United Sates and Israel, and Obama has since been going out of his way to reaffirm the strength of that alliance. In fact, when Hilary Clinton made a statement reaffirming America’s support of Israel and recognizing Israel’s concessions for peace, Mahmoud Abbas threw a hissy fit.
For all the reasons I’ve been mentioning, I find it hard to understand why President Obama made freezing settlements the centerpiece of his new strategy to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians, when there are so many other issues. I can mention the intractable schism between HAMAS and Fatah; the cultural chasm dividing Jews and the Islamists who hold sway in the area; and oh yes, the prospect of seeing Iran’s Revolutionary Guards encamped in the West Bank. Perhaps we’ll get into some of these obstacles to peace in a future forum.
Before I close, I would like to ask you to think of names like Judea, Samaria, Hebron, Shiloh, Bethlehem. We know these names from the Bible, which tells the ancient stories of our people. These are the place names where we lived. They happen to be in the West Bank. In many of them, there has always been a Jewish presence. Our roots in Hebron go back to the time of Abraham. Our patriarchs and matriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Leah, Rachel are buried in the Cave of Machpelah, in Hebron. Rebecca is buried in Bethelhem. Our brethren in Hebron were massacred by the Arabs in 1929. I find the notion that Jews should not be allowed to live where Judaism was born deeply offensive. So do many Israelis. Yet, they stand ready to yield this historic land for the cause of peace. No, the settlements are not the obstacle to peace. In my opinion, the main obstacle to peace is the oft-stated and well-documented goal of so many of our enemies to eradicate Israel and the Jews, and the inability, or unwillingness, of the so-called moderate Palestinians to confront them. Evacuating settlements will not change that.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, wages in the West Bank have increased 24%. While Palestinian officials say they demand a complete settlement freeze, others say that it would damage their livelihoods as 12,000 Palestinians are employed on construction work in settlements. Palestinian unemployment in the West Bank has decreased by 3%. Tourism to Bethlehem is up 94%. Olive harvest income is up 158%. The West Bank GDP has grown 2.3%. Why do I have to get this information from web postings instead of the mainstream media? Why aren’t Abbas and Obama shouting, “It’s the economy, stupid.” I think the disheartening reason is that really, “It’s the ideology, stupid.”
To sum up, I’d like to quote from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs:
“One may legitimately support or challenge Israeli settlements in the disputed territories, but they are not illegal, and they have neither the size, the population, nor the placement to seriously impact upon the future status of the disputed territories and their Palestinian population centers.”