Really ‘understanding the settlements’: Why Gaza is still central

The sooner Gaza can evolve into a Mediterranean Islamist beach paradise, the better for all (foreign) parties concerned.

Palestinian protesters
West Bank Palestinians will never sell out Gazans for a chance at Israeli citizenship, and Gazans will never give up their ties to the West Bank, which remains "as much the heartland of historical Palestine as it is of biblical Israel" [AFP]

The David Project, an initiative of the American organised Jewish community that aims to spread “pro”-Israel messages to high school and college students, has just published a report on that most thorny issue – Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.

The pamphlet, titled “Understanding the Settlements: A Primer”, was written in the wake of the Israeli government’s declaration of its intention to build 3,000 units in the “E-1” corridor connecting Jerusalem and the Maale Adumim colony. In furtherance of the David Project’s mission to “provide students… the analytical framework, skills, tools and knowledge necessary to have an open dialogue about Israel”, it explores how Israeli settlements have “increasingly become [the source] of contention, confusion and confrontation garnering significant attention, and even outright condemna­tion, around the world”.

Such is the state of conversation about Israel today that even the most banal statement – settlements cause trouble – is being used by liberal American Jewish leaders to prove “just how disastrous they are“, further underlining the need for Israel to address the issue with Palestinians “before it is too late”. 

The reality, however, is that the pamphlet does no such thing. Rather, it reinforces existing misconceptions about the origins, dynamics and possible future disposition of the settlements at precisely the moment when clarity is most desperately needed. Because the pamphlet reflects the views of the “liberal” component of Israel’s well-documented hasbara, or propaganda programme, it is worth considering what the pamphlet’s arguments tell us about how Israel will frame negotiations over the settlements to its American supporters if and when talks with Palestinians are revived.

What’s the problem with settlements?

The pamphlet asks: “Is this portrayal of Israeli settlements, including new planned construction in E-1, accurate? Are the settle­ments really the primary cause for the failure of the peace process?” These are certainly good questions, but then the authors declare that “it is not our intention to provide those answers here”.

Why bother to keep reading if the pamphlet won’t answer its own central questions? Because the pamphlet will “provide history, depth and understanding… and correct a common misunderstanding, which depicts the settlements as monolithic”. 

The pamphlet’s arguments are subtle but they are all oriented to a single aim – muddying the waters about the nature of Israel’s settlement enterprise, laying the conceptual framework for legitimising some settlements, and removing any fundamental Palestinian rights to self-determination so that whatever sovereignty might be offered is considered adequate to fulfill their “legitimate” demands.

To make such a discourse possible the “territories” must be “acquired by Israel” in 1967 rather than conquered (p 3). Next, “modern settlement” must begin in 1967, not in the 19th century with the arrival of Zionism on the soil of Palestine (ibid). This creates a conceptual break between historical Zionism and the present chauvinistic variant which even mainstream American Jewish leaders are having a hard time stomaching.

While the pamphlet goes out of its way to provide a “thoughtful and nuanced” discussion of the settlements (p 11), it must have nothing to say about the nuances, never mind broader realities, of Palestinian history and present-day life. Its one foray into history consists of rehearsing the long-discarded argument that Palestine was “very much a backwater during the age of the Ottoman Empire” and only modernised with the arrival of the Jews. The cover of the pamphlet reinforces this image, featuring a photo taken through an Ottoman-era Palestinian archway which frames a view of a typical red-roofed modern settlement. Whether or not such imagery was consciously chosen to give such effect, the meaning is in keeping with Zionist discourse for over a century.

Indeed, the pamphlet removes any hint of real attachment by the mass of Palestinians to the territory of Palestine. Nor are they allowed to have any positive agency. Thus Hamas and the PA are mentioned; thousands of Palestinian civil society activists who’ve for decades risked arrest, long-term imprisonment, torture and death to resist the occupation and construct democratic Palestinian institutions at the grassroots level are completely ignored. Apparently, they have nothing to do with the settlements (go tell that to the protesters being attacked on a daily basis by Israeli soldiers and settlers as they attempt to protect their lands).

Such a discursive erasure of Palestinians permeates not just the settlement primer, but most of the David Project’s other literature as well. Thus its 27-page primer [registration required] on the history of Zionism mentions the word Palestinian exactly zero times, as if Zionism had no impact on and was not impacted by the indigenous Palestinian Arab population.

The new pamphlet further avoids any mention of the intensive efforts to integrate the Occupied Palestinian Territories into Israel in the decades between their “acquisition” in 1967 and the beginning of the Oslo era, or of the decades of de-development of the Palestinian economy that left thousands of Palestinian with little choice but to work in the very settlements built on their land.

Buying organic

Ultimately, for the pamphlet’s authors the settlement system is a natural and “organic” development of decades of administration (p 6); and like any good organic product, no two settlements are alike. The main goal of the pamphlet is to argue that “the settlements are not a monolithic entity and cannot be viewed as such. Each settlement, and settlement type, has unique characteristics based on history, geography and demographics, and each one poses unique po­litical ramifications to Israelis and Palestinians alike” (p 11). Supporting this claim are the supposed facts that the settlements only comprise a very small percentage of built-up area of the West Bank (3 percent, according to the pamphlet), while new settlement construction has been dormant for the last decade. 

Such arguments are, of course nonsense. Never mind that over a hundred outposts have been created in the last decade which are not some anomaly vis-a-vis the core settlement blocks, but rather, according to Israel’s own Foreign Ministry, are a “continuation of the settlement enterprise in the territories”. Or that the settlement system – the “matrix of control” that includes security zones, bypass roads, land confiscated for the “Wall”, territory closed off to Palestinian access as “military zones” or otherwise restricted only to Israeli Jews through expropriation or military seizures – constitutes well over 50 percent of the West Bank. So dominant factor have they become in the negotiating process that the normally staid Time magazine declared 2012 the “year of the Israeli settlement“.

As for that troubling E-1 corridor that prompted the pamphlet’s publication, the authors quote such esteemed experts as neocon stalwart Elliott Abrams and Atlantic contributing editor Zvika Krieger to explain that any problem caused by settlement expansion can be handled by the creation of bypass roads for Palestinians. At any rate, “there are no objective criteria for what actually constitutes a workable, realistic Palestinian state”, so Israel and the world (and even, one can suppose, Palestinians) shouldn’t spend too much trouble trying to create one. 

 Israeli settlers take part of Palestinian city

The goal of such a discourse is clearly to write Palestinians out of the country’s history while creating a fantasy of legitimate settlement and a Palestine whose future viability is enough in doubt to call into question why Jews should bother withdrawing from anything. More specifically, by arguing for the uniqueness of each area of the settlement map and for the broad stasis in settlement growth, it achieves three goals simultaneously: it legitimises the retention of some – presumably natural or at least “organic”- settlements as part of Israel; it calls into doubt the possibility of their being a “workable and realistic” Palestinian state; and yet it maintains at least the rhetorical possibility that such a state could be created, if Palestinian are “realistic” enough and make the hard concessions necessary for peace.

Justice from the International Court?

Particularly egregious and telling is the discussion of international law and its application to the settlements (p 10). The 2004 Advisory Opinion by the International Court of Justice on the legality of the “Wall” separating Israel and key settlements from the rest of the West Bank and Jerusalem is one of the most damning indictments of the settlement process ever issues, precisely because of the legal and moral stature of the Court. The Opinion directly contradicts the claim that each settlement is unique and must be considered on its own terms by laying out clearly the strong consensus in international law that the entire settlement enterprise is a direct contravention of international law.

Because of this, the pamphlet has to discredit the Opinion in order to have any legitimacy. It cannot do so on legal grounds, so, in one of the most mendacious parts of the pamphlet, the authors claim:

This ruling starts with an un­derstanding that the British Mandate for Palestine was de­signed to create a state for Palestinians. It rejects the idea that Jews have any right to the land of Israel and makes no mention of Jewish self-determination. Accordingly, if the premise is that the land belongs to Palestinians and not to Jews, then any Jewish building on “occupied” land is illegal.

In fact, the ruling does nothing of the sort; instead it points out that the “responsibility of the United Nations in this matter also has its origin in the Mandate and the Partition Resolution concerning Palestine”, and “emphasise[s] that both Israel and Palestine are under an obligation scrupulously to observe the rules of international humanitarian law” (pp 5, 14). Such a glaring misreading of the Advisory Opinion serves to highlight how dangerous Israel considers the report to be if and when the final disposition of settlements comes before some sort of international adjudication mechanism, and thus why everyone who cares not just about Palestine, but about Israel as well should read the report carefully.

‘A sort of apartheid’?

For the David Project and most American supporters of Israel, too direct a focus on settlements and their actual legal standing brings one dangerously close to the word that no one (even Jimmy Carter) wants to speak: apartheid. Thus the attempt of the pamphlet to muddy the waters as much as possible in their discussion.

Ironically, such squeamishness is fast disappearing in Israel, where one can regularly attend conferences discussing the implications of a one-state future and the potential or even present realities of Israel as an apartheid(-like) state.

For the still-Zionist Israeli “Left”, apartheid is the disaster awaiting Israel if it doesn’t withdraw from the vast majority of settlements in the very near future. At a conference three weeks ago on the possibility of apartheid, Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director-general and ex-ambassador to South Africa described the present situation as “sort of Israeli apartheid” whose similarities to the South African original are so strong they “scream to the heavens… In the situation that exists today,” he explained, “we are actually one state. This joint state… is an apartheid state.”

The Israeli Right, at least in its saner moments, is not as unconcerned about the implications of an apartheid-like system as one might imagine. Indeed, the Nationalist camp’s discourse on settlements sees the unimpeded expansion of settlements and even Israeli sovereignty over the entirety of the West Bank as good not just for Jews, but for Palestinians too.

At a recent conference held in Israeli-occupied Hebron, titled “Application of Israeli Sovereignty of Judea and Samaria”, most speakers directly addressed the issues of how expanded settlement and annexation of the West Bank. Several government ministers and Likud Knesset members spoke openly of the impossibility of a two-state solution and the need formally to annex the West Bank. Taking a cue from the PLO circa 1975, they declared support for a so-called one-state solution, rejecting the idea of an independent Palestinian state – and by that matter, a fully Jewish one as well.

Rather than advocate merely annexing Area C, these hardcore settlement leaders told a crowd of over 500 who crammed into the visitor’s centre of the Israeli-controlled Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron: “We’re all here to say one thing: the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Why? Because!”

Just because. So self-evident is Israel’s dominance over Palestinians today that no further explanation was apparently necessary, certainly not that particular audience. Luckily, other speakers did provide justifications for Israeli annexation. Some claimed that the supposed demographic threat that would occur if Israel gave millions of Palestinian residents of the West Bank Israeli citizenship was without statistical basis. Others – rhetorically at least – expressed concern for Palestinians and their plight living without any type or even hope of sovereignty. 

 Palestinians learn to survive in divided land

Caring for Arabs, just not in Gaza

An editor of the Makor Rishon newspaper, Eran Bar-Tal, argued:

The application of sovereignty is not only a right, it is a moral obligation to the Arab population in Judea and Samaria, that does not enjoy proper living and economic conditions as a result of the lack of sovereignty and the anarchy that has come into being in the area.

Let us assume that Bar-Tal is genuine in his sympathy for Palestinians. His argument is quite telling. Likud leaders have spoken about the eventual need to give Palestinians citizenship for decades, with former Defence Minister Moshe Arens, the most vocal exponent of this scenario. It’s worth noting here that a 2010 poll by the Ma’an news agency showed 56 percent of West Bank Palestinians accepting Israeli citizenship if offered, although for the opposite reasons offered by Arens – he thinks the combined “’48” and “’67” Palestinian population inside Israel and the West Bank would remain too low to threaten the state’s Jewish majority in the near future; they believe that they could become a majority much more quickly.

Why is Arens so confident in the face of a significantly higher birth rate for Palestinians? Israel is home to about 6 million Jews and about 1.2 million Palestinian citizens. The West Bank Palestinian population is about 4 million, producing a total population of about 5.2 million Palestinian in an envisioned Greater Israel, or 46 percent to Jews’ 54 percent of the population. Demographers and politicians can use any number of model to determine if and when Palestinians can make up the 800,000 person deficit. But it’s clear that this is not the most comfortable of margins looking down the line for Israeli policy-makers. Even today, given the messy coalition politics that characterise Israel’s parliamentary system, the present large Palestinian minority would profoundly reshape the country’s political (never mind broader) culture the moment West Bank Palestinians were allowed to vote. The only way to imagine including West Bank Palestinians into the Israeli polity would be to remove Gaza’s 1.7 million people from the equation. 

This is, of course, precisely what Israel did in 2005 when it “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip.

The long-term importance of the Gaza redeployment is clearer than ever if we consider that the hardcore nationalist right never believed in a two-state solution and has always sought to create enough facts on the ground in the West Bank to render withdrawal impossible. Or rather, it seems the Right has a two-state plan, and not a one-state plan it says it’s offering. It’s just that the two states have very different borders than most people imagined they would – namely Israel and the West Bank as one state, and Gaza as another.

The situation forces a re-evaluation of Israeli attitudes towards Gaza. Similar to the Egyptian military’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood (which it oppressed for decades until it was domesticated enough to trust with a share of power), Israel would have no problem working with its current enemy Hamas – whose early development it after all supported – once it learns to play by the rules.

Rather than starving Gaza into submission, it now becomes clear that Israel has a strong interest in encouraging a rapid development of the Strip under the friendly guidance of the Turks, Qataris and Egyptians (not surprisingly, few if any structures recently built with Turkish or Qatari money were damaged in last November’s Operation Pillar of Defence). The sooner Gaza can evolve into a Mediterranean Islamist beach paradise – a Beirut without alcohol, scantily clad women or Shia (at least not out in the open) – the better for all (foreign) parties concerned.

On paper, it’s a very inventive scenario. But it will never be anything more than a complete fantasy, even if it is the official if unstated policy of the Israeli government. West Bank Palestinians are never going to sell out Gazans for a chance at Israeli citizenship, and Gazans are never going to give up their ties to the West Bank, which remains as much the heartland of historical Palestine as it is of biblical Israel.

In the end, if Israelis want to keep the West Bank, they’re going to have to take all 6.2 million Palestinians with it – a number which already equals and likely exceeds Israel’s Jewish population. Not to mention a decent share of the millions of Palestinian refugees who remain outside historic Palestine. This is a reality not even the most creative Israeli politician or settler has figured out what to do with yet, which is why we can expect the status quo to continue for the foreseeable future.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming