June 12, 2009 – Although the United States stopped calling the Israeli settlements in the West Bank “illegal” in 1981, they clearly are illegal. The rest of the international community agrees. For reasons which seem self-evident to anyone who travels the West Bank and talks to the residents, the growth of settlements and the actions of settlers are seen by Palestinians and other Arabs as the principal obstacle to peace. What we saw in the Holy Basin, in Ma’ale Adumim, in the E-1 area, and in Hebron, certainly confirms that judgment.
Article 49 (sixth paragraph) of Geneva Convention (IV) states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Israel has historically made various arguments to evade application of this prohibition to the settlements in the West Bank. Among them are: that although Israel ratified the Convention it did not adopt legislation to enforce it, so no case can be brought; that Israel is not an occupying power, because there is no state to which it can “return” the territory; that Jews should have the right to live anywhere, making arguments against settlers racist; and that, since final status issues include drawing borders, the future of the settlements is a subject of negotiation. These arguments are all fallacious.
Israel claims to have ended its occupation of Gaza, but now concedes that it occupies the West Bank, in spite of the terms of the Oslo Accords purportedly splitting the elements of sovereignty between Israel and the new Palestinian Authority. As to the right of Jews to live where they want, Yoram Dinstein points out that, while individual Israelis can lawfully buy land from Palestinians and build homes on that land, where the state expropriates land, builds settlements that are exclusively for Israeli Jews, provides incentives to get Jews to move into the settlements, and provides infrastructure and security that is exclusively for the Israelis in those settlements, it is beyond argument that Israel has “transfer[red] parts of its own civilian population to the territory it occupies,” in violation of Article 49. [Dinstein, The International Law of Belligerent Occupation (Cambridge U Press 2009) pp 238-248] The other arguments, that Israel has chosen to leave the rights enshrined in Article 49 unenforceable, and that this is an issue for final status negotiations, are obnoxious. The point of Article 49 is to protect the rights of the pre-existing population of an occupied territory to the land on which its society has been established. Such a population is never, and Palestinians are not, in a position to “negotiate” with its jailors for its rights. Such rights have to be the starting point for resolution of issues, not the subject of compromise and division.
What we saw while in the West Bank makes clear how dangerous to peace and hostile to justice the settlements are. In the Holy Basin and nearby areas of East Jerusalem, the heart of historic Palestinian society, Israel is conducting “archeological” digs that somehow all seem to require displacement of Palestinian families. Once the land is confiscated and the families evicted, much of the land is then used for settler homes, recreation facilities and other uses, while the remaining Palestinians are provided no municipal services. The main road east from Jerusalem, historically critical in connecting Palestinians for commerce, education, medical treatment, and family and cultural ties, is now blocked, but new roads for Israelis only have been built. Ma’ale Adumim, a large and opulent colonial city east of Jerusalem, shows what can be done if six times the water Palestinians are allowed to buy from their own aquifer is available to settlers on a subsidized basis. Looking back toward Jerusalem from Ma’ale Adumim, you see a valley with a new, empty highway to a large police station. The police station, which has no population around it to serve, was paid for by settlers. The objective, long opposed by American administrations but clearly still alive, is to build settlements around the new police station, completing the encirclement and strangulation of Arab Jerusalem. If and when that happens, we were told in Egypt, there will be an outbreak of violence that will spread far beyond E-1.
Perhaps the most graphic and sickening demonstration of the power of the settler movement to lead Israel into a moral abyss is Hebron. A handful of violent, aggressive settlers took over a hotel over high holy days and refused to leave. There are now about 400 of them, “protected” by 1500 IDF soldiers, in the old market or Casbah of this Arab city of about 200,000. They have constantly initiated violence and confrontations, throwing rocks, garbage and feces down on Palestinians remaining in the area and requiring the installation of wire mesh nets over the streets. The IDF has issued closure orders on 520 shops, and another 1,000 have closed due to the harassment and security measures. Several streets are no longer accessible to Arabs, including the mayor of Hebron. Any goods or materials brought into the remaining shops have to be carried through a small revolving iron gate, and can be ordered dumped out on the ground. Ear-splitting music in Hebrew is broadcast 24 hours a day. The main mosque, where 27 Muslims at prayer were murdered by a settler, was closed for a year; when it was re-opened, 65% of it was dedicated to use as a synagogue, open freely to Jews, while the remainder was open only under oppressive security measures to local Muslims. The mayor told us that every family has someone in Israeli jails, aggregating some 14,000 Palestinian prisoners.
It is almost beyond belief that Israelis, much less Americans, allow themselves to be associated with an occupation that enables such cruelty. We were told repeatedly that most Israelis do not know, and do not care, what is done in the territories, so long as they feel safe. But it seems obvious that what is being done in their names is not only contrary to law and simple humanity, it is certain to create increasing resentment and animosity among a population that will soon outnumber Israeli Jews. It is hard to imagine a course more likely to deny Israel a secure future.
We were told by a senior American diplomat that the United States is in a “constant philosophical struggle with the Israelis,” because they focus tightly on what seems to them necessary in the short term for security, while we try to get them to focus on strategic issues – what needs to be done today to reach conditions of long-term stability and peace. What the diplomat did not say, but seems obvious, is that by relying on force and ignoring any legal or moral restraints on its use, the Israelis are digging themselves and the United States into a hole from which there is no likelihood of escape. America needs to do more than to engage in “philosophical struggle” with Israel. Just as a friend does not let a friend drive drunk, an ally does not let an ally doom itself and its region to interminable instability, injustice and violence. A simple place to start would be to insist that Israel obey international law and comply with agreements it has already made, freeze all settlement growth, and begin the process of reversing the incentives for Israelis to live in the territories.
Michael Thomas Esq., Author & CNI Citizen Diplomat for CNIOnline.org
FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml