The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 37.0°F | A Few Clouds

COLUMN

Destruction in Israel

Ken Nesmith

Peace seems as distant a possibility as ever in the Arab-Israeli conflict; the last month saw a new bloody round of fighting in Palestinian territory. There is one well-known phenomenon in the conflict, however, that moves the prospect of peace tragically further out of reach. It is a sickly destructive tactic entirely at odds with Western values that has taken hold in the collective mind of an entire society, it perverts and disables the causes it purports to help, and it must stop if the prospect of peaceful resolution is to find new life.

The tactic is driven both by economics and religious fundamentalism. Some of its practitioners seek a divine reward promised to them in texts they believe to be the word of their God, leading them to strike illegally and immorally against the innocent and defenseless who earn their victimhood merely by their presence, while others simply choose this tactic as a means to help their families and escape economic hardship. Although the majority of society does not practice that extremism, and most actually oppose the practice, the constant threat of aggression and attack leads them to sympathize with the principles and motivations that bring it to terrible fruition. It is a practice that denies a fundamental and universal freedom to live. Despite popular disapproval, sympathetic governments provide money and support for its practice, making only nominal efforts to stop it as politics demand. Even during the nineties, when a foundation for peace seemed so close at hand, this practice continued nearly unabated. It deserves complete, unequivocal condemnation, and it must be stopped.

I refer, of course, to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli government seizes land, often legally held by Palestinian citizens, and on it builds housing for Jewish Israeli citizens. The precise mechanism of seizure varies between open theft, military seizure, state annexation, and purchase from absentee landowners. Too often, Palestinian homes are expropriated at tank and gunpoint, farms are seized, and trees uprooted to force evacuation, destroying the civilian’s legitimate, titled possessions and often their sole viable means of livelihood. Once land is controlled, settlements are built and administered solely for Jewish Israeli citizens. While fundamentalist Judeo-Christians hold that once Jews fully occupy the right portions of land, the second coming of Christ will occur, others support settlements merely as a statement of the Jewish right to land in the Middle East.

The true importance of this crime must be understood by examining it conceptually. The settlements represent a fundamental, comprehensive denial of the right to own property. They abrogate this simple, fundamental right, the means to moral, reasonable, and civilized, existence, by forcibly taking the legal possessions of citizens. Such a flagrant denial of property rights reduces its practitioners to morally bankrupt thugs unwelcome in any society respectful of reason; it is no surprise, then, that most Israelis disapprove of the practice.

The settlements are not filled naturally; instead, the Israeli government pays citizens, who cite economic considerations as their primary reason for settlement, to live in the settlements. (Religious and ideological conditions are the next most important). Additionally, foreigners from Russia, Africa, and elsewhere around the world are imported to fill the bland cement neighborhoods. Often these immigrants harvested from around the world take the offer to leave difficult living conditions to live at low cost in Israel without knowing the nature of their newly constructed homes. The settlements put a huge tax burden on the struggling economy and earn resentment in Israel. For 2003, almost $400 million has been allocated for the settlements, further hobbling an economy already crippled by war and failing socialist fiscal policies

The settlements are built deep into Palestinian territory as a means of asserting physical control over the lands. Israel has taken control of over fifty percent of the West Bank, the larger of two small pieces of land to which Palestinians are confined. Some of these lands are current settlements, some are reserved for future expansion, and some are just controlled. Twenty-five percent of Gaza Strip, the smaller piece of land that is the most densely populated in the world, has likewise been taken for settlements. Settlements are often constructed with the obvious intention of disrupting Palestinian communities. Massive roads that connect one settlement to another cut through the hearts of small villages hundreds of years old, making them unlivable. Other settlement plans encircle small villages with walls and security buffers, effectively imprisoning the village and ending its access to farmlands and any remaining neighboring villages. Swaths of land are flattened around roads and settlements as security buffer zones. Settlements disproportionately consume the limited water resources in these areas.

The practice is a divisive one within Israel and elsewhere. Various media outlets now refer to the Gilo settlement as a “Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem, built on land occupied by Israel in 1967.” The New York Times and CNN both now often call settlements mere “neighborhoods”; when confronted about this change, CNN replied that they “don’t want to talk about this issue.”

The number of settlers and settlements continues to grow. Between 1993 and 2000, the number of settlers in the West Bank, excluding the Eastern half of Jerusalem, doubled under the cover of “natural growth”, while the world was told that settlement expansion had been frozen.

Ultimately, these settlements severely exacerbate the conflict; the public knows this. A Christian Science Monitor-Investor’s Business Daily poll asked, “To what extent is the spreading of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights responsible for the suicide bombings by Palestinians?” Respondents answered on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 meant “not at all responsible” and 7 meant “completely responsible.” Sixty two percent answered from 4-7; twenty-two percent answered from 1-3. Clearly, the public understands how settlements can prompt violence.

At a time when the United States looks to justify attacks on Iraq because of Saddam’s violations of international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions, we might consider how such resolutions are respected in this situation. U.N. Security Council resolution 446 states that Israeli settlements built on land occupied since 1967 “have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.” Resolution 446 also asks Israel to observe the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Passed in 1979, this resolution has been followed by resolutions condemning Israeli failure to comply with it; that failure continues today. Settlements continue to expand.

There are several severe difficulties which block the path to peace. This is one of them, and it’s among the most important. Negotiating for land that’s being seized has been described as negotiating for a pizza while one side is eating it. It’s an apt simile. To respect Palestinians, to respect the will of Israeli citizens, and to respect international law and order, the Israeli government needs to cease settlement activity.