March 12, 2006

Settling the dispute?

It's been doing the rounds for a while but since I was just looking at the Anthony Lowenstein site I thought I'd do a quick post on it. Apparently Israel knew that it was breaking the "explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention" when it began the settlement of territory it conquered in 1967. All a bit silly really given that they couldn't possibly not have known that but, as everyone knows, Israel's opponents have to work to a far higher standard of proof than Israel and its allies do (WMD anyone?). So here's Gershom Gorenberg in the New York Times describing the relinquishing of the settlements as Israel's Tragedy Foretold.
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the front-runner in the March 28 vote, plans to evacuate more West Bank settlements unilaterally, a top figure in his party said this week. Mr. Olmert himself announced he would stop decades of investment in infrastructure for settlements. Those promises reflect a change not only in Mr. Olmert, a lifelong rightist, but in the electorate. Polls show that a strong majority supports parties ready to part with settlements.

The pattern is a familiar one from other countries. An endeavor once considered the epitome of patriotism leads to a quagmire. Sobriety and sadness replace euphoria. Arguments that once turned dissidents into pariahs now seem obvious: in this case, that to keep the West Bank will require Israel either to cease being democratic or to cease being a Jewish state. Not only settlers but national leaders have eroded the rule of law in pursuit of what they considered a patriotic goal.

As an Israeli who has pored over the documentary record of the settlement project, I know there is one more painful, familiar element to this story: the warnings were there from the start and were ignored, kept secret or explained away. Leaders deceived not only the country's citizens, but themselves. So begin national tragedies.

Here is one critical example. In early September 1967, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was considering granting the first approval for settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights, conquered three months earlier in the Six-Day War. An Arab summit meeting in Khartoum had rejected peacemaking. The prime minister believed that the Golan and the strip of land along the Jordan River would make Israel more defensible. He also wanted to re-establish the kibbutz of Kfar Etzion near Bethlehem, which had been lost in Israel's 1948 war of independence.

The legal counsel of the Foreign Ministry, Theodor Meron, was asked whether international law allowed settlement in the newly conquered land. In a memo marked "Top Secret," Mr. Meron wrote unequivocally, "My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention."

In the detailed opinion that accompanied that note, Mr. Meron explained that the Convention — to which Israel was a signatory — forbade an occupying power from moving part of its population to occupied territory. The Golan, taken from Syria, was "undoubtedly 'occupied territory,' " he wrote.
So much for the expansionism but Israel's official racism gets some coverage here too:
Mr. Meron took note of Israel's diplomatic argument that the West Bank was not "normal" occupied territory, because the land's status was uncertain. The prewar border with Jordan had been a mere armistice line, and Jordan had annexed the West Bank unilaterally.

But he rejected that argument for two reasons. The first was diplomatic: the international community would not accept it and would regard settlement as showing "intent to annex the West Bank to Israel." The second was legal, he wrote: "In truth, certain Israeli actions are inconsistent with the claim that the West Bank is not occupied territory." For instance, he noted, a military decree issued on the third day of the war in June said that military courts must apply the Geneva Conventions in the West Bank.

There is a subtext here. In treating the West Bank as occupied, Israel may simply have been recognizing legal reality. But doing so had practical import: if the land was occupied, the Arabs who lived there did not have to be integrated into the Israeli polity — in contrast to Arabs within Israel, who were citizens.

Eshkol and other Israeli leaders knew that granting citizenship to the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would quickly turn Israel into a binational state. In effect, the Meron memo told Eshkol: you cannot have it both ways. If the West Bank was "occupied" for the Arab population, then neither international law nor Israel's democratic norms permitted settling Jews there.

The memo did note, however, that settlement was permissible if done "by military bodies rather than civilian ones" in bases that were clearly temporary. A week after receiving the memo, Eshkol informed the cabinet that Kfar Etzion would be re-established — through a branch of the army called Nahal, which created paramilitary outposts. By the end of September, settlers arrived at Kfar Etzion. Publicly they were described as "Nahal soldiers." In fact, they were civilians. The ruse acknowledged Mr. Meron's opinion. It also showed a sadly mistaken confidence that the legal, ethical and diplomatic difficulties of settlement could somehow be avoided.
There, you see? Israel cannot annex the West Bank without watering down its Jewish majority to near or actual non-existence or without more "transfers" of Arabs. The idea of a state that isn't specifically a state for Jews negates the zionist project which is about Jewish exclusivity or supremacy. So what now? Transfer or withdrawal? The way the piecemeal withdrawal is being played out with land grabbing and economic dislocation, both by the wall. It seems a combination of the two is on the cards.

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