Following up on Friday’s post on Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s campaign promise to maintain “maximum settlers” — despite having told 60 Minutes’ Bob Simon the opposite — Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported last month on a declassified Israeli defense ministry database revealing the huge extent of the illegal settlement enterprise:
The official database, the most comprehensive one of its kind ever compiled in Israel about the territories, was recently obtained by Haaretz. Here, for the first time, information the state has been hiding for years is revealed. An analysis of the data reveals that, in the vast majority of the settlements — about 75 percent — construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued. The database also shows that, in more than 30 settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure (roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police stations) has been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents.
The data, it should be stressed, do not refer only to the illegal outposts (information about which was included in the well-known report authored by attorney Talia Sasson and published in March 2005), but to the very heart of the settlement enterprise. [...]
The information contained in the database does not conform to the state’s official position, as presented, for instance, on the Foreign Ministry Web site, which states: “Israel’s actions relating to the use and allocation of land under its administration are all taken with strict regard to the rules and norms of international law — Israel does not requisition private land for the establishment of settlements.” Since in many of the settlements, it was the government itself, primarily through the Ministry of Construction and Housing, that was responsible for construction, and since many of the building violations involve infrastructure, roads, public buildings and so on, the official data also demonstrate government responsibility for the unrestrained planning and lack of enforcement of regulations in the territories.
Similar to the way the Bush administration used a set of baroque legal opinions to redefine torture as “not torture,” successive Israeli administrations have relied on a specialized interpretation of international law to define as “legal” its policy of transferring its citizens into occupied territories in order to solidify its hold upon conquered land. A strong international consensus considers this policy illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and indeed it was was recognized as such in the Israeli government’s initial 1967 legal review of the settlement option. What’s particularly noteworthy about the new revelations — in addition to being yet more evidence that aggressive settlement expansion is in no sense the work of “rogue” elements, but is in fact a concerted effort to seize more Palestinian land in anticipation of future concessions — is how much of the settlement operation is illegal even under Israel’s own interpretation.
One of the reasons conservative pro-Israel zealots have been displeased by President Obama’s choice of George Mitchell as Israeli-Palestinian envoy is that Mitchell has in the past shown that, not only does he recognize how provocative and harmful the settlements are, he’s actually been willing to say so in public.
In their 2001 report examining the causes of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the commission led by Senator Mitchell noted that “Palestinians are genuinely angry at the continued growth of settlements and at their daily experiences of humiliation and disruption as a result of Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territories. Palestinians see settlers and settlements in their midst not only as violating the spirit of the Oslo process, but also as application of force in the form of Israel’s overwhelming military superiority.”
In addition to stressing the need for an end to Palestinian terrorism, the report also concluded that a Palestinian-Israeli cease-fire would be “particularly hard to sustain unless the [government of Israel] freezes all settlement construction activity.” As they often do when confronted with evidence that policies they support help to fuel violence, conservatives attacked Mitchell for his “moral equivalence.”
The settlement problem has grown much worse in the interim, thanks in no small part to the Bush administration’s decision to ignore Mitchell’s recommendations and to instead reward Israel’s bad behavior. Hopefully, in working to get peace negotiations back on track, Mitchell will bring the same kind of fair-mindedness and honesty that causes all the right people to dislike him. And hopefully, President Obama will listen to him, and begin to treat the settlement problem with the seriousness it deserves.