Population Transfer: It’s Never Pretty

In the wake of Helen Thomas’ offensive comments about Israel and subsequent resignation, a very important conversation has developed over the double standard that exists in regard to the denial of Jewish claims versus denial of Palestinian claims in the area of Israel-Palestine, and the fact that the the former is seen as unacceptable while the latter is a regular feature of conservative discourse.

As Yglesias wrote yesterday, the point here is not to diminish or excuse the ugliness of either side’s arguments, but to raise the level of discourse by making clear that population transfer is always ugly, always a human tragedy, something never to be treated lightly, let alone advocated.

In thinking about this, I was reminded of one of the tactics used by Israel hawks to downplay the negative impact of the settlements on the peace process, which is to insist that the settlements are not permanent, and that when the time comes the settlers can simply be sent to live somewhere else inside the newly established borders of Israel. David Frum provided a good example of this in a February 2009 discussion with Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg:

FRUM: If people move one way, they can move another way. I just — the idea that these are kind of geologic facts — we’re talking about loading up a moving van. Had there been, had there been a deal, there’s nothing easier. I mean you’ve seen these settlements, they’re ramshackle things, they’re trailer parks…

GORENBERG: David, David, you’re not visiting the same settlements that I am if that’s what you’re seeing. And I spend a lot of my time reporting on the settlements.

FRUM: Even if they’ve built the Emerald City of Oz in one particular place, again, people move, people are incredibly mobile

Watch it:

People are incredibly mobile. I’m certainly no supporter of Israel’s settlement project, but I do recognize, as Frum apparently does not, that the eventual withdrawal from these settlements — which will be necessary in any two-state agreement — will be enormously traumatic, both for the residents themselves and for Israel as a country. It will break up communities, cause people to abandon homes, schools, and places of worship. It will force them to dig up and move their dead. One has to admire Gershom’s ability to deal in such good humor with Frum’s ignorance of all of this, but taken in addition to Frum’s continued insistence that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank “has ended” — a comically indefensible claim by any measure — I really have to wonder why anyone considers him worth taking seriously on the issue.

Unfortunately, such inconsideration of the suffering and trauma that transfer entails is not limited to conservatives. Pushing back on the idea that the settlements represented an obstacle to two-states, last year the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait argued, like Frum, that “settlements are reversible“:

To make peace with Egypt, Israel abandoned settlements in the Sinai peninsula, forcibly uprooting residents there. It did the same when withdrawing from Gaza recently. It was prepared to do the same in the West Bank in 2000 and 2001, though it never had to follow through because negotiations collapsed.[…]

If Israel’s government and population can be convinced that a real peace is attainable, then they should be able to dismantle the settlements.

While not as blithely dismissive of the whole issue as Frum, Chait still evinces little appreciation for how deeply painful the process of withdrawal will be.

Last week I had an opportunity to meet with Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet who, in 2002, offered a peace initiative developed with Palestinian activist Sari Nusseibeh. Among other things, we discussed how Israel must begin to prepare to compensate the settlers for removing them from communities that they’ve occupied for decades. “We must tell the settlers ‘it’s time to come home'” to Israel, Ayalon said. This would be difficult, he acknowledged, because in the settlers’ view, they are already home in the West Bank, which they refer to as Judea and Samaria. Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal of settlers from Gaza was incredibly difficult for Israel. The withdrawal of West Bank settlers will be far larger, and far more difficult. And those who have consistently downplayed the significance of the settlement issue — and thereby helped enable their continued expansion — bear a share of the blame for that.