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COLUMN

“Realities on the Ground”

Ken Nesmith

I find the wall Israel is building in the occupied territories troubling. If the purpose of the wall was purely to hamper terrorism, it could be built on Israeli land. Instead, it is built inside Palestinian territory and completes a land grab. In the face of a thousand social, religious, political, and economic undercurrents that shape this prominent conflict, there are simple conceptual realities that are as undeniable as they are central to the source of conflict. Honest scholars acknowledge and embrace them, be they Israel’s most vigorous defenders or its most virulent detractors.

One such conceptual reality is the right to own property. Theft is generally not recognized as a valid means of interaction between individuals. It is also understood to be a criminal act for a greater period of time than those moments when the transgression is actually occurring. We don’t say, “A theft occurred, but it’s in the past! So it’s okay.” We say, “A theft occurred. The previous state of property apportionment should be restored.” This is an important part of civilized and reasonable existence, and the rule of law. Things that people own cannot be taken from them by force; instead, a property owner can trade his property for something else he or she values, if he or she freely chooses to do so.

The wall confounds such a simple notion. It will pen the Palestinians into an ever shrinking enclave, separating nearly half a million Palestinian farmers from their fertile farmland and freshwater wells. About 8,000 acres will be confiscated for wall construction, and nearly 26,000 acres will lie between the wall and the pre-1967 borders. Though just 25 percent of Palestinian land will be taken, that land comprises nearly 80 percent of available farmland and 65 percent of water resources, according to Israeli non-governmental organization Gush Shalom. In urban areas, the wall acts as a prison barrier, constricting future development by trapping 1.56 million Palestinians inside an area approximately 1,000 acres in size. The wall will enclose three sides of several cities, slowly strangling them.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza that forms the other half of this plan has been sold as the redeeming factor here. About 7,500 settlers live in Gaza, controlling 30 percent of the land there (over a million Palestinians live in the rest of the small strip of land). If the measure wins political support (and it looks like it may not), those settlers will be withdrawn. One hand giveth a very little bit, the other hand taketh away a lot.

The destruction and expropriation of lands that the wall entails is no secret. Denounced internationally, the wall once earned our scorn and the threat of reduced billions in aid, until President Bush changed his mind. Now, he speaks of the wall as if it were the Palestinians’ fault. His language is remarkable. At a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announcing support for the wall, he all but blamed Palestinians for it. “The Palestinian people must insist on change,” he declared. (I bet one change they’d like to insist on is that they not have their land taken to build a wall). “We will help, but the most difficult work is theirs,” Bush said. One might say their work just got a lot more difficult. Bush wasn’t done though; he commended Sharon for his “bold and courageous decision,” and then -- this takes the cake -- called on Palestinians to “match that boldness and courage.”

Let’s review. Israel decides to build a fence taking land that isn’t theirs. Control of this land has been, to make an understatement, a source of sharp disagreement. This decision is to be lauded as bold and courageous. What can Palestinians learn; how could they also be bold and courageous? I suppose they’d have to claim a bunch of land that isn’t theirs, evict the residents and illegally settle it, and get the U.S. to fund them while doing so.

Bush speaks as if Palestinians need to get with the program and catch up with what he calls the “realities on the ground” -- basically, to acknowledge Israeli control of the lands taken. But the “realities on the ground” are not the immutable, inescapable facts that such a term implies. Those realities have been created very recently. Several hundred thousand settlers live in West Bank settlements. Between 1994 and 2000, while settlement expansion was ostensibly frozen during the Oslo peace process, the population of the settlements doubled under the cover of natural expansion. Israeli population centers extend ever further into the West Bank, connected by webs of bypass roads and defense outposts. These are the “realities on the ground” to which the Palestinians must adjust. I’m tempted to try this policy in my house. I’ll go to my roommate’s desk, take some of his things -- maybe his iPod, a nice digital camera, and a pen -- and set them on my desk. Then after a few hours, when he notices, I’ll impatiently ask him to please accept the new “realities on the ground,” and maybe give him back the pen. I could use his -- I mean, my camera to get a good picture of him when I tell him that he just needs the boldness and courage to make things better.

To honestly defend Israel’s actions, one has to be comfortable with replacing reason with coercion. Honest defenders of Israel’s actions openly profess as much; Benny Morris is one such defender. An authoritative, well-respected historian disowned by the right and left alike for his unwillingness to spin history to either side’s liking, Morris’s words are candid. While he doesn’t advocate ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians at the present (calling it not only morally wrong but “politically impractical”), he does believe that it wasn’t done thoroughly enough in the past. In an April 17 New York Times article, Morris indicates that having decided on transfer, Israel’s leaders should have resolved to “do it properly” in 1948. All of the land should have been taken, not just some of it. He’s aware that his words are blunt: “I’m not saying it’s nice; I’m not saying it’s pleasant,” he adds. The lesson, that ethnic cleansing can solve our problems if done completely, is an interesting one.

Leading American advocates for Israel fit in the same camp. Former Reagan and Bush administration officials David Frum and Richard Perle, in their recent book “An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror,” deem force legitimate as a means of acquiring property. They cite historic instances of expropriation, and note that although these movements of borders “are seldom agreeable to everyone,” what needs to happen here is another historic instance of expropriation. “The greatest -- indeed, the sole obstacle to peace is the feeling among many people in the Arab and Muslim world that anything that was once theirs can never legitimately be anybody else’s,” they write. The Palestinians display a lack of a “willingness to swallow disappointment” and accept their fate.

Their judgment prescribes an unfavorable course of action for the Palestinians. The key variable in their examples is time. They’d like lands taken quite recently, in the last ten years, to now be legitimately accepted as Israel’s. “It’s been long enough; it’s ours now,” they say in effect, as Palestinians on the other side of the wall wonder what to do since their farmlands and homes were taken away yesterday, last week, last year. Under these guidelines, the proper Palestinian response would be to muster as much violence as possible to retake the settled lands. Then, they could wait a few years, ask the world to accept the new “realities on the ground,” and insist that any unhappy parties “swallow their disappointment.”

There are worse sins in the world than the building of this wall, and there are worse problems with the Middle East. Irrationality and anti-Semitism still abound, and the Arab world is still mired in too many self-destructive practices. But honesty demands that those who defend this as the right way forward understand and take intellectual responsibility for their action, as do scholars like Morris, Perle, and Frum. This is not an act of peace; it is a promotion of violence, coercion, and expropriation. As such, it legitimates those as the tools for interactions between individuals and nations. Perhaps might does make right after all. To my roommate -- watch your iPod.