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David Matas

David Matas: Settlements and Peace

by David Matas, posted Jan 7, 2012


It is common to hear that Israeli settlements on the West Bank are an obstacle to peace. The Israeli announcement of an intention to expand settlements in the West Bank following on the UN vote to give the Palestinian Authority non-member observer status at the United Nations produced a new round of condemnations of these settlements.

Yet, objectively, what is the problem? Why should the settlements be an obstacle to peace?

The Palestinian Authority, to be sure, does not like them. They have become an obstacle to negotiations because the Palestinians have insisted on a freeze on the settlements as a pre-condition for returning to the peace negotiation table. However, all that would be necessary to remove that obstacle would be for the Palestinian Authority to drop the pre-condition. Why is it there?

The current global round of condemnation of settlements hooks onto the Palestinian Authority objection, asserting that the leadership of the Authority is moderate and should be encouraged. That form of condemnation though is derivative. If the Palestinian Authority had no objections to the settlements, the friends of the Palestinian Authority would have none either.

If one goes beyond the fact of objection to the reasons for the objection, they are threefold. One is legal hocus pocus, a misuse of terminology.

The Geneva Conventions on the Laws of War prohibit transfer of nationals of an occupying state to the territory of an occupied state. Israel is labelled an occupier and the settlements a transfer.

It is debatable whether Israel can be considered an occupying state since it has the same status at international law in relation to the West Bank as Jordan did before 1967 and Jordan was never considered an occupier. In any case, the Geneva Conventions prohibit forcible transfer, not voluntary movement. The Government of Israel has not forced the settlers to move to the West Bank.

The second objection is that the settlements create facts on the ground and divide up Palestinian territory. This objection assumes that, when we get to a negotiated two state agreement, all the territory on which the settlements sit would become part of Israel. However, that is not necessarily so, not even likely so. That has never been the negotiating position of Israel in the many negotiations which have already taken place.




The third objection is that the settlements make the West Bank and Israel an apartheid state. Settlers live apart from Palestinians and are surrounded by security.

This form of criticism is an inversion. Settlers are attacked. They set up defence mechanisms, security barriers, check points. If the attacks stopped, the self-defence separation would also stop.

It is closer to reality to accuse the Palestinian Authority of apartheid. Arabs live in Israel proper in safety. It is impossible for Jews to live in the West Bank except under armed guard. When Israel pulled out of Gaza, the Jews who lived there had to be evacuated for their own safety.

The very label "settlements" beclouds the reality of the situation. They would be better and more accurately described as Jewish neighbours. The objection to the settlements is an objection to having Jewish Israeli neighbours.

It is the objection to the settlements, not the settlements themselves which are an obstacle to peace. The objection to the settlements is an objection, in another form, to the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Anti-Zionists do not want the state. And they do not want the nationals of such a state in their midst.

As of September 2012, Israel's population stood at about eight million. The Israeli Jewish population makes up about six million or about 75%. The Arab population is about 1.6 million or about 20%.

As of July 2012, the West Bank consisted of about 2.6 million people. Of that population, the estimate of the settler population, for December 2010, is about 328,000. The settler population is about 12.6% of the West Bank.

So the Jewish population in the West Bank both in absolute and percentage terms is considerably less than the Arab population of Israel. In principle, there is no reason, other than Palestinian intolerance of Jewish neighbours, why the presence of Jews in the West Bank should be a problem.

The existence of the settlements is a litmus test for peace, but not in the way commonly described. We will not get to peace when the settlements are frozen or gone. Even if that should happen, it would amount to appeasement, emboldening the anti-Zionsts.

We will get to peace only when the settlements are accepted, even welcomed. Only when Palestinians are ready to accept Jews as their neighbours will there be peace in the Middle East.




David Matas is senior honorary counsel to B'nai Brith Canada. He is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  This article was first published in the Jewish Tribune

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