The settlements: dismantlement or deconstruction?


We are constantly told that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are an obstacle to peace. I was part of a B’nai B’rith International delegation meeting with various United Nations permanent missions in New York recently. We were told at a meeting with representatives of a mission of a European Union state that with every new settlement, it is more difficult to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Every member of the Security Council, except for the United States, in February 2011 voted in favour of a resolution condemning all Israeli settlements established in occupied Palestinian territory since 1967 as illegal. Even the US ambassador Susan Rice agreed that the settlements are illegitimate, but vetoed the resolution anyways, stating that the resolution “risks hardening the positions of both sides.”

Yet, what is tendentiously labelled as ‘settlements’ are nothing other than Israeli Jews in the neighbourhood. To say that Israeli Jews cannot live in the West Bank is racist. The fact that Israeli Jews had to be evacuated for their own protection once Israel gave up control of Gaza was a testimonial to the murderous antisemitism of elements of the population of Gaza. It makes no more sense to say Israeli Jews cannot live in the West Bank than to say Israeli Arabs cannot live in Israel.

There is no international law breached by Israeli Jews living in the West Bank. The laws of war prohibit the forced transfer of nationals of an occupying power to occupied territory. No Israeli Jew, not one, has ever been forced to live in the West Bank.

Moreover, the West Bank is not territory occupied at international law. The West Bank was never called occupied territory when Jordan had control before the 1967 war. Yet, at international law, the status of the West Bank is the same since 1967 as it was before 1967, the only difference being a change in the name of state in control of the territory.

For there to be an occupation at international law, there has to be an occupying and occupied power both of which are members of the community of nations. The only conceivable occupied power for the West Bank is Jordan. Yet Jordan has renounced all claims over the West Bank.

For the February vote at the Security Council, no state made sense. It was illogical for the US to call the settlements illegitimate and then worry about the Palestinians hardening their positions. No Security Council state insists that Jews live only within certain areas of their state. Why should these states treat the West Bank differently?

The presence of the settlements is, then, not an obstacle to peace. It is rather the label ‘settlements’ and ‘occupied territory’ that are obstacles to peace. It is the labels that envenom the dispute, harden the Palestinians in their positions and drive them away from the negotiating table.

The labels ‘settlements’ and ‘occupied territory’ are elements of anti-Zionist war propaganda against the Jewish state. If we want peace, we have to avoid using the vocabulary that impels to war. Any peace treaty that would endorse this war propaganda would be inherently unstable.

To anti-Zionists, the language of settlements and occupied territory applies to all of Israel. The very phrase “occupied Palestinian territory since 1967” in the vetoed resolution implies that there is other Palestinian territory occupied before 1967.

For a Jewish Israeli state to live side by side in peace with an Arab Palestinian state, Jews must be able to live side by side in peace with Arabs. Israeli Jews have shown that they can do that in Israel. Palestinian Arabs have so far shown the exact opposite in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Objectively, there is nothing wrong with Israeli Jews living in the West Bank. The settlements are an issue only because Palestinians have made them an issue. If they drop the issue, the problem of the settlements will simply go away.

The European Union permanent mission to the UN, which the B'nai B’rith International delegation visited, got things exactly wrong. With every new reference to the vocabulary of settlements and occupied territory, it is more difficult to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

To get to peace in the Middle East, we do not need to freeze and then dismantle the settlements. We rather have to deconstruct and then drop the settlement vocabulary.

David Matas is a world-renowned human rights expert and is senior honorary counsel to B'nai Brith Canada. He is based in Winnipeg and author of Aftershock: Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism.


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