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Aren’t the Settlements Illegal?

The settlements are not “illegal” as sometimes charged. The Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply to settlements even though you will often hear the claim that it does. Israel took over the land in a defensive war in 1967 from rulers (Jordan, Egypt) who themselves had recently acquired control of the land by aggressive war. The only internationally recognized agreements are those of the Oslo process which do not in any sentence prohibit settlements. At some points in time Israel has voluntarily agreed to a temporary halt to new settlements in anticipation of negotiating breakthroughs. But the repeated reversion to terrorism by the Palestinian Arabs has ended such restraint. The endlessly repeated refrain about “occupied territories” is propaganda, since a) the territories never belonged to Palestinian Arabs, b) the Palestinian Authority was given control of the areas, and c) the only reason Israel continues to exert control is in reaction to Palestinian Arab violence.

The United Nations has frequently addressed the question of Israel’s policies and activity of Israelis in the territories, starting with Resolution 242, passed right after the 1967 war. That Resolution seeks a just resolution of the conflict and calls for withdrawal and mutual recognition, but it says nothing about legality. Resolution 338, passed after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, requires Israel and the Arabs to negotiate peace. By insisting that the Palestinians negotiate with Isreal, the Security Council Resolution implicitly agrees that the occupation itself does not violate international law. Later Security Council resolutions – numbered 446, 452 and 465 – do indeed condemn Israel’s policy of building settlements in the occupied territories and declare that these settlements have “no legal validity.” However, these are political statements reflecting the balance of power in the UN and not a reasoned legal analysis. The Resolutions are not binding on Israel and do not of themselves create illegality.

At Camp David in 2000 and Taba in 2001 Israeli Prime Minister Barak offered to redeploy and uproot settlements from up to 95 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of the Gaza Strip. Settlements in the remaining 5 percent of the West Bank ­­ where the majority (about 70%) of the settler population lives ­­are just over the arbitrary Green Line from Israeli cities and would be annexed to Israel and other land given in exchange. These were serious Israeli offers — when Israel made peace with Egypt, settlements in the Sinai were dismantled. If settlements are the “real problem” then why was this offer unacceptable?

What is the background of Jewish settlements in Palestinian Arab areas?

-Jews lived in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the Gaza Strip throughout recorded history, until the 1948 War of Independence, when they wer forced to flee the invading Arab armies.

-In Hebron, the Jewish community existed throughout the centuries of Ottoman rule, until the massacre during the Arab rioting of 1929. Such settlements as Neve Ya’acov and the Gush Etsion block were established under the British Mandatory Administration, which allowed Jewish settlement in these areas. Even though British Mandate Authorities, particularly in the latter period of the Mandate, were not sympathetic to the Zionist cause, they nevertheless permitted the establishment of Jewish settlements in all areas west of the Jordan River, implementing the League of Nations Mandate. In fact,the Mandate called for Jewish settlement in all of the areas under British control including the almost 80% of the Mandate land that the British gave to create Trans-Jordan and prohibited Jewish settlement there.

Why has Israel continued to expand settlements? An obstacle to peace?

Israeli settlements (“occupied territories”) are there for multiple reasons, including:

  • The land is disputed. Both Arabs and Jews have claims and since there was no other sovereign authority, Israel, representing the Palestinian Jews, claim they had as much right to settle people there as the Palestinian Arabs. The last internationally recognized sovereign was the Ottoman Empire, a distant and oppressive ruler. Israel captured the West Bank land from Jordan that had overrun the land in 1948 when it had just emerged from the British Mandate. Gaza was captured from Egypt who had overrun it in 1948. The Jews will tell you that there never was a Palestine or other country that Israel invaded and “stole the land”
  • There had been Jewish communities and dwellers in the West Bank long before 1967 or even 1948. In, for example, Hebron and Gush Etzion, both sites of massacres by Arabs in which large numbers of Jews were killed. Kfar Etzion and other villages in the Jerusalem-Bethlehem corridor, fell to Arab forces in May 1948 and those captured were massacred. Sons and daughters of Jews who lived there until 1948 were the first to return after the 1967 war. Why prohibit former residents or their families from returning?
  • The land did in fact belong to Jews. Near Jerusalem, for example, Palestinians describe Gilo as a neighborhood built on “West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem” that they consider an “illegal Jewish settlement”. Suddenly Gilo, an integral part of Jerusalem proper for years, seems subject to negotiation, at least in the public mind. As to the “illegality” of Gilo, the vacant land in the Gilo area was purchased, before World War II, by a group of young Jewish lawyers, including Dov Yosef, who later became one of David Ben Gurion’s most important advisors and government ministers. When the land was taken back from the Jordanians in 1967, it was returned to its owners.
  • The so-called West Bank, according to the Bible and tradition, represents the cradle of Jewish civilization, and some Jews, driven by faith and history, wanted to reassert that link. The area was called Judea and Samaria, its name in the Bible, up until 1950 when Jordan, an Arab country created arbitrarily by the British out of 77% of the Mandate for Palestine, annexed it and called it the West Bank
  • The Israeli government believed that certain settlements could serve a useful security purpose as a buffer against future attacks like the ones in 1948, 1967, 1973
  • Some Israeli officials felt that building settlements, and thus creating facts on the ground, might hasten the day when the Palestinian Arabs, presumably realizing that time was not on their side, would talk peace

In most parts of the world it is not considered a disaster if someone new comes to town and buys a farm or a dwelling. Only in Arab parts of the Middle East is it an unacceptable affront for a Jew to arrive with plans to stay. And “world opinion” only accepts this sort of behavior when it is the Jew who is being rejected. If a black person is denied the right to buy a house in the community of his choice, it is considered racial discrimination. If a Catholic can’t move into a Protestant neighborhood it is religious discrimination. And Americans, including Jews, are very careful to avoid any appearance of discrimination against Muslims. But if a Jew wants to buy a place to live in the West Bank, it is considered a brutal Israeli invasion. Mitchell Bard writes:

  • It would certainly be called racist if Jews were barred from living in New York, Paris or London; barring them from living in the West Bank, the cradle of Jewish civilization, would be no less objectionable.

And Eugene Rostow, former Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs wrote:

  • The Jewish right of settlement in the area is equivalent in every way to the right of the local population to live there.

Palestinian Arabs volently reject Jewish settlement. Most Muslim countries that have a prohibition on Jews living there, where land transfers to a Jew can carry the death penalty. There are call for these practices to be universally condemned and rejected (we can’t hear you lol) .

The Israeli government did not move to prohibit settlement (which would have required new laws) and, in fact, offered financial incentives to Jews to move to the territories. But these settlement communities did not exploit any Arab ownership or displace any Arab community or farm. The Jewish settlements have been established only on:

  • Land in pre-existing Jewish communities, or
  • Land that was unowned (that is, was previously controlled by Jordan and had no private owner), or
  • Land purchased from established owners.

The propagandistic idea of Palestinian Arabs being “forced out” is not the case. Much land was still empty or underutilized. Many Jews bought the land or dwelling they moved to. When public land was involved, Israeli settlements were established only after an exhaustive investigation process, under the supervision of the Supreme Court of Israel, designed to ensure that no communities were established on private Arab land.

A segment of a 1994 documentary “Road to Palestine” (Discovery Channel) focuses on the case of Mohammed Khatib, an Arab whose land was allegedly stolen by Israel for a “settlement” near Jerusalem. In fact, the land was taken by eminent domain for the development project, mostly from Jewish owners, several of them wealthy and prominent. The show emphasizes Khatib’s claim to his land, implying the Israelis had disputed it and seized his property, but nothing of the sort occurred. His claims were valid and were the basis of compensation, same as his Jewish neighbors.

Since 1967, Israeli governments have maintained a willingness to withdraw from areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a peace agreement with the Arabs, within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 242. In such a case, it was commonly expected that at least some of the settlements would have to be uprooted, just as the Israeli town of Yamit was dismantled following Israel’s 1979 peace agreement with Egypt. At Camp David in July 2000, Ehud Barak reportedly offered to uproot all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and the isolated settlements on up to 95 percent of the territory of the West Bank, as part of a final status agreement. The Palestinian Arabs rejected this offer.

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