Today this argument relates principally to Judea and Samaria, more widely known as the ‘West Bank’, a recent moniker the Jordanians applied to the area, after the Arab State’s invasion of Israel in 1948.
The existence of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, and formerly Gaza prior to the unilateral 2005 Israeli withdrawal, are central to the claim that the Jewish State has instituted a 'land grab' since 1967. Settlements are the focal point of boycott campaigns, and other efforts to deligitimise Israel.
However, commentators less hostile to Israel also assert Jewish settlements are a deeply problematic phenomenon. Whilst accepting Israel is surrounded, in a hostile Arab-Islamic neighbourhood, they nonetheless advance a somewhat similar stance to anti-Israel critics, by portraying the settlement issue as one of the great obstacles of the peace process. Indeed, some act as if it is the greatest challenge, as per John Kerry’s intensive criticism of Israeli settlement policy, suggesting it will undermine a two-state solution.
Whilst Jewish settlements are seen across the world as the bottleneck that stops any peace process in its tracks, a cursory glance at some fundamental facts will suggest that that this claim is a propagandistic red-herring of monumental proportions.
Israel is regularly demonised, with the very worst of motives ascribed to its behaviour. For example, many in the Arab world suggest the Jewish State seeks to territorially dominate the Middle East. Thus, one might ask to what extent has Israel held onto the territory it gained during the Six-Day War, which constitutes the Nation’s greatest victory? Startlingly, 90% of these gains have been returned to Israel’s Arab neighbours: the Sinai, and part of the Golan Heights, with Gaza becoming a de facto independent state.
More particularly, what of Judea and Samaria itself? To what extent has Israel 'grabbed' or 'thieved' the 'West Bank'? A survey, commissioned by anti-Israel NGO B’Tselem, found that 0.99% of the territory features constructed settlements, with applicable roads taking further space. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) prime negotiator, similarly asserted that settlements constitute 1.1% of the region.
Processes have not been instigated, by Israel, to recognise new Jewish settlements, since the Oslo II process of the mid to late 1990s. Dutch anti-Israel activist and mapmaker, Jan de Jong, produced a sequence of distorted maps to suggest Israel was instituting a 'land grab'. De Jong rather absurdly claimed that 60% of Judea and Samaria is taken by settlements but his maps, as reproduced by the Wall Street Journal, Feb 4th 2010, note that Israel did not begin further processes of settlement recognition after 1995. Subsequent land activity, according to the map, relates to unrecognised 'Settler outposts', which the Israeli authorities dismantle with some regularity.
|De Jong Map, suggesting a 'land grab', Wall Street Journal, Feb 4th 2010
Anti-Israel commentators claim that the proposed E1 development would drive a wedge from East Jerusalem to the Jordan River Valley, and thus the site would divide any potential Arab-Palestinian state. This is a complete untruth. The narrowest point between the E1 and the Dead Sea is fifteen kilometres, as wide as the narrowest points within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, the very borders those who condemn the Jewish State demand that it to return to.
Whilst settler violence is rightly an issue worthy of attention, it is wildly exaggerated in contrast to the far more prevalent, and deadly, Arab-Palestinian equivalent. According to B’Tselem’s own figures, some seventeen Arab-Palestinians were killed by settlers from 2000 to 2012, often in contexts of self-defence. By contrast, according to B’Tselem, over two hundred settlers were killed during the same period.
One might think that Arab-Palestinians are desperate for an independent state, given the abhorrent conditions so many activists claim they are subjected to. Thus, it is curious that the Millennial ‘Camp David’ talks, which offered the PA 91% of their territorial demands, fell apart due to Yasser Arafat’s rejection of joint sovereignty over the Temple Mount, which Muslims call al Haram al Sharif. Land concessions were even more generous at Taba in 2001.
The 2007-08 Abbas-Olmert talks proposed territorial concessions of over 98%, with some land swaps. Abbas suddenly dropped out of the final stage of the talks in September 2008.
The brief 2010 talks with Benjamin Netanyahu collapsed because the PA demonstrated bad faith by only attending for the final few weeks of a ten month settlement freeze, having previously dismissed this substantive concession. Former US Peace envoy George Mitchell stated soon afterward that the PA made the freeze an absolute condition, after it having previously been 'less than worthless'. Mitchell described the freeze as less than the US requested but 'more than anyone else had done.'
Latterly, Netanyahu made several attempts to get Abbas to the negotiating table. Abbas finally succumbed when the demand to release all pre-Oslo prisoners was met, indicating that settlement freezes are not a pre-eminent requirement for negotiations. Rather, a tangible political victory is the incentivising element to bring an ever-reluctant Palestinian Authority to direct peace talks.
Likewise, anti-Israel commentators use the growth of settlements as a pre-text to claim that the two-state solution is dead, and thereby advocate for a one-state bi-national 'Rwandan solution'.
The intent of such one-staters is evident by their prejudicial actions. In reality, settlement growth is not a major issue because the substantive majority of Jewish Settlers live in five settlements near the 1949 Armistice Lines, and it was envisaged, in peace talks, that Israel would keep a majority of settlements, in exchange for some land swaps. The PA has long accepted the principle of land swaps. Thus, intense international condemnation, in which it is claimed that settlement expansion makes a just two-state solution impossible, is completely incorrect.
It could be argued that settlement activity is the sole stimulus toward achieving peace, given that the international community is unwilling to hold the PA to account for any wrongdoing. Former Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij said: 'The Palestinians now realize, that time is now on the side of Israel… and that the only way out of this dilemma is face-to-face negotiations'. It does seem Israel gives the green light to further construction when the PA seeks to bypass a negotiated peace process.
However, if such a strategy has been adopted, it has been enacted in a half-hearted fashion. Despite the popular portrayal of Benjamin Netanyahu as a ‘hawkish’ supporter of settlements, official figures by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics demonstrate that there has been less settlement construction during Netanyahu’s five years of governance. An average of 1,443 new housing units have been built in the contested territory during each year of his tenure, despite house prices being at a premium within the State itself.
In a similar manner, the most significant move on settlements occurred in April 2012, when an Israeli government committee was established to complete legal recognition of settlements Bruchin, Rechalim and Sansana, which already possessed de facto recognition. Previously, Negahot was the last settlement to have its recognition process legally finalised, in 1999, so this further de jure process was a diplomatic about-turn. The international media claimed Bruchin, Rechalim and Sansana were illegal settler outposts. However, State recognition had been initiated in the 1980’s and 90’s. The completion of the process was frustrated for years by Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, due to political considerations.
Final recognition was likely intended to place pressure on the Palestinian Authority. Negotiators for the two sides held talks in Amman during January 2012, but the PA decided to withdraw after only five meetings, thus failing to get Abbas to agree to meet Netanyahu. Talks recommenced, but PA negotiators again walked away in April, after Israeli proposals were submitted. Ron Prosor, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, noted that the PA quit the talks without response. Netanyahu would initiate the move toward full recognition soon after.
This article addressed the pragmatic and realpolitic issues surrounding Jewish Settlements. The subject also has a substantive moral and legal dimension, for which the continued existence of settlements can be forcefully argued. For example, Article Six of the League of Nations/British Mandate charter explicitly allows for Jewish settlements.
Likewise, Jewish history and culture has not only been embedded in Judea and Samaria since ancient times, but to arguably an even greater extent than the rest of Israel, with of course the notable exception of East Jerusalem.
Yet we see an overt denial of any rights of residence for Jewish people in Judea and Samaria.
The frequent pronouncements, by a variety of Palestinian Authority officials, that Jewish people will not be allowed live in a future Arab-Palestinian state, are met with disinterest. More broadly speaking, there is no substantive expectation that Jewish people will or should be allowed stay in the region, with a decades-long acquiescence to the Palestinian Authority’s racist land-law, making it a capital offence for Arab-Palestinians to sell land to people of a Jewish identity. Rather, there is unrelenting hostility to their presence. This popular anti-Israel Western position subscribes to overtly racial argumentation, for not only does it echo the NAZI concept of Judenrein living spaces, it goes further by extending the claim to a region where Jewish people possess an indigenous tie to the land.
Ultimately, a narrative focusing on settlement issues confuses a disturbing reality, in which hostility toward settlers is merely symptomatic of a broader malaise. This conflict is motivated by Israel’s very existence, as a principally Jewish State in Dar al-Islam, be it existing behind or beyond its Armistice Lines.