Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Are Israeli Settlements Really Such a Problem? A Primer

In discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (or lack thereof), one of the things that has been getting much attention recently is the issue of settlements. I don’t want to go into a lengthy, drawn-out history lesson or argument about whether Israel did this or the Palestinians did that. But I do want to make a few brief (well, at least by my standards…) comments on the whole issue of settlements.

First, I don’t think that construction of settlements in the West Bank is a very good idea. However, note that I say that from the perspective of an American supporter of Israel and not from the perspective of an Israeli. I think that the existence of settlements may make an eventual peace deal harder (though not impossible) to achieve.

That said, I think that it is important to remember several things and to draw several important distinctions. First, there are really about five kinds of “settlements” and two of those don’t bother me at all. I suspect that most Americans, when they hear the term “settlement” are picturing one of the numerous hilltop enclaves, often consisting of nothing more than a few trailers, erected by far-right or orthodox Israelis.The Israeli government has done a decent (though not perfect) job of dismantling and removing these hilltop settlements from time to time. Another type of settlement involves the creation of a Jewish village or neighborhood in or near Arab villages or towns that don’t otherwise have a Jewish population (or which had a Jewish population until massacred or driven out by Palestinians; Hebron, for example). The third type of settlement is the frontier-style farming community. Then there are the much larger “settlements” which are really, in essence, suburbs of Jerusalem. The most well-known of these is Ma’ale Adumim which has a population of over 30,000. Think Noblesville and Indianapolis for a decent comparison. Finally, there are actual neighborhoods of Jerusalem (like Gilo) that are technically settlements.

So, for example, this week the Obama administration criticized Israel for additional construction planned in Gilo. It is important to understand that what is being planned is not a new village in the middle of nowhere but rather expansion of an existing Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. Furthermore, one thing to note is that this area is often referred to as “Arab East Jerusalem” or “Palestinian Jerusalem” but those terms are meaningless. Jerusalem existed as a single city with a majority Jewish population until 1948. From 1948 to 1967, the city was divided in two with Jordan (not “Palestine”) holding the eastern half of the city (and refusing to permit Jews entry). Finally, in 1967 when Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem from Jordan and following Jordan’s decision to enter the Six Day War, the city was again reunited. (Similarly, Gaza, which was supposed to be part of the Arab state in the 1948 partition plan, was captured and occupied by Egypt in 1948.) To call the eastern part of Jerusalem (which includes the Old City) “Arab East Jerusalem” is to pre-determine the outcome of one of the most difficult parts of a final peace treaty.

It is also critical to remember how small Israel really is (8,522 square miles; compare that to Indiana’s 36,418 square miles) and that much of it (nearly 50%) is desert. While some settlements are constructed with political or religious motives, others are built simply because people need a place to live!

Some suggest that the settlements in and around Jerusalem are nothing more than a “land grab” by Israel. However, that argument is belied by the fact that in previous peace negotiations (including the 2000 Camp David and Taba negotiations from which Yasser Arafat walked away), Israel offered to cede portions of Israel outside the West Bank or Gaza to the new Palestinian state in exchange for the areas to be ceded to Israel due to the presence of settlements. (Of course, Israeli Arabs wanted no part of having their citizenship transferred from Israel to the a new Palestinian state…)

Furthermore, ask yourself this question: Why is it that we all seem to expect that a component of any final peace deal will require Jews living in the areas that become part of an independent Palestine to leave their homes and move back to Israel yet we have no expectation at all that Palestinians living in Israel (who make up over 20% of the Israeli population) would be expected, let alone forced, to leave their homes and move to the new Palestinian state?

And don’t be fooled by recent pronouncements from some in the Palestinian Authority that Jews living in the settlements would be welcome to stay in an independent Palestine. First, if the Palestinian Authority was serious about this, then why would a cessation of settlement activity by a pre-condition to peace negotiations? After all, if Israeli settlers would be “welcome” in a Palestinian state, why not encourage the continued growth of settlements and the economic prosperity that they bring. Second, do you think many Jews would feel safe (let alone comfortable) living in a newly independent Palestinian state? Would the rule of law really apply and would Jews really be treated as equal citizens with the right to practice their chosen religion? Finally, don’t forget what happened shortly after Israel forcibly removed settlers from Gaza. Palestinians promptly destroyed $14 million worth of greenhouses that had been erected in Gaza by Israelis and left for the Palestinians to use.

One other thing to think about when you hear someone criticize Israeli settlement practices: Why don’t we hear corresponding criticism of the failure of the Palestinian authority to build settlements. Between the West Bank and Gaza, there are still twenty-seven official refugee camps housing approximately 688,000 “refugees”! Why haven’t Palestinian authorities built their own farming villages, neighborhoods, suburbs, and other living accommodations for these people instead of leaving them to rot in refugee camps? For that matter, why hasn’t the rest of the Arab world -- which is supposedly so concerned with the plight of the Palestinians and so opposed to Israeli “expansion” -- done anything to help build Palestinian infrastructure (whether physical infrastructure or the infrastructure of a functioning government)?

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t think that continued construction of Israeli settlements (and here I really mean true settlements, not the suburbs and neighborhoods in and around Jerusalem) is a good idea and will, in all likelihood, make peace more difficult. But I don’t understand why settlements should be a pre-condition to negotiations; after all, aren’t settlements and settlers precisely one of the issues to be addressed in negotiations?

The Palestinians need to stop finding reasons not to make peace. If they want Peace, all they need to do is show up at the negotiating table and start talking (of course the cessation of terrorist activity and an end to incitement would be nice steps, too).

Update: Shortly after completing this post (but before it went live), I came across the following from Sarah Palin's interview with Barbara Walters:
I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead.
Does Sarah Palin know something that I don't? Or is she just hoping that Jews will flock back to Israel so that end times prophecies she appears to believe in will come true?


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At Friday, December 04, 2009 8:38:00 AM , Blogger Schmedly said...

Great points you make. I never heard or thought about Arabs leaving Israel. Perhaps that is one of the negotiating points. Why should any negotiations take place while Gilad Shalit is still being held? Israel holds all the card and as we know any peace deal will not result in peace anyway.


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