Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Richard Greener on Israeli Settlements

Richard Greener is a Huffington Post blogger who is relatively new to the Israeli/Palestinian situation. He has recently arrived in the "World" section with an essay entitled, "Israeli Settlements: What Are They Really?" As you might expect from the Huffington Post, he has a negative view of the settlements, and there is nothing redeemable about them. Some of Greener's facts, however, seem to be a bit off. I thought I'd take a minute to take a look at his work.

What immediately jumps to mind is Greener's now expected use of the legal argument to declare all the settlements illegitimate. Here is the critical quote:
"Article 49 is simple, clear and is not a subject of controversy. It forbids an occupying power from moving its own civilian population onto occupied lands as permanent residents. Despite this prohibition Israel has constructed settlements outside and beyond its borders for more than 40 years."
 "Moving" the civilian population? No, Mr. Greener, the Geneva Convention doesn't say that. What it actually says is the following (and thanks to readers for pointing out that in the original publication I had originally misquoted):
"The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."
The key difference here is between the words "transfer," used by the Geneva Conventions, and the word "move" used by Greener. The term "population transfer" has a very specific meaning. It refers to a government or authoritative body moving large amounts of people, against their will or otherwise. It has never meant anything else.

In this situation, Israel is not forcing the settlers to move to the West Bank by any stretch of the imagination. They are choosing to move of their own free will. Was the Third Aliyah a population transfer? Was the Irish emigration due to potato famine population transfer as well? This might be illegal or prohibited anyway, I do not know the Geneva Conventions well enough. But the fact that Greener intentionally misrepresented what the Geneva Conventions said is very telling. I find it difficult to believe that he simply got it wrong. Why did he not begin his article with the truth? Could it be because doing so would mean acknowledging that the settlements are not in fact illegal?

Mr. Greener continues with pointing out that the Israeli settlers are considered to be citizens of Israel and gain all the benefits thereof, even though they do not live in Israel. This is true, but more importantly is that he continues to write that the settlements "are not part of Israel." He implies in his first paragraph, if you care to read it, that the settlements are on land that belongs to the Palestinians, though he does not come right out and say it.

He seems to have forget United Nations Resolution 242, which at the time was written with the understanding that the nations involved would decide on the boundaries of their nations together, with mutual cooperation. Therefore, it is not so much that the settlements are on land that is not part of Israel (though that is the case right now), but more that the settlements are on land that could one day be part of Israel. That is what the settlers are hoping for, after all. But Mr. Greener does not consider this to even be a possibility. What a surprise.

Then Mr. Greener resorts to a favorite debating tactic, the misplaced metaphor:
"Imagine, if you can, that 8.84% of us, or 26,878,900 citizens of the United States, decided to move and go live in housing projects built in Canada, on Canadian land seized by US military forces, against the wishes of the Canadians. Then imagine the US government taking the position that all or nearly all of those 27 million settlers should remain in Canada - forever - not as new Canadians, never to become citizens of Canada - but as citizens of the United States. How would you feel about that? And how would you feel if you were a Canadian?"
 It would probably require a whole new post to point out all the things wrong with this metaphor. But it might be simply stated that Mr. Greener is make a key fallacy in which he assumes that the situation as it currently stands is the way it always has been. When the settlements first started there really wasn't a Palestinian nation the way there is now. The PLO did not consider the territories to be "Palestinian land," in fact no one did. The Palestinians did not have the nationalism or the attachment to the territories in 1967 that they do today. There is no comparison with Canada.

Mr. Greener also seems to think that all those settlers just showed up one day and set up camp over the heads of the Palestinians. In fact for most of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations the PA did not mind the presence of settlements, they weren't even discussed during the Oslo Accords. Now the settlements are becoming more and more of an obstacle to peace, I won't deny that. But they weren't always an obstacle, and it would behoove Mr. Greener to have pointed that out.

There is more to be discussed in Mr. Greener's work but I'll finish up with his final paragraph:
"There can never be a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem so long as any Israeli civilian population continues to occupy the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The answer must be to let Israel be Israel; let Israel be safe and secure. But also let Palestine not be Israel too."
 In other words, unless hundreds of thousands of people are forcibly evicted from their homes and ethnically cleansed from the West Bank, there will never be peace. That is quite the line in the sand, and I can only hope that Mr. Greener did not realize the implications of what he is saying. To call for entire cities worth of people to be forcibly thrown out of their homes (some of whom have been there for generations) does not strike me as a peaceful route to take.

Further, he doesn't seem to be aware that the vast majority of the settlements are within 3% of the Green Line, and that simply redrawing the border would accommodate most of them. This is why redrawing the borders from the Green Line was a key part of the Barak peace offer in 2000, and land swaps were a part of the Olmert offer in 2009. Not even Jimmy Carter thinks that all the settlements need to go. But Mr. Greener does.

Part of seeking peace is finding a compromise. No one is expecting Israeli settlers to "occupy" the territories after a peace agreement has been signed. But at the same time, only the hardliners among the Palestinians realistically expect all of the settlers to get up and move. There are too many of them. And if the Palestinians (and Mr. Greener) choose this particular issue as their hill to die on, then the peace process will truly die there. Hopefully the Palestinian leadership will come to be more flexible than the Mr. Greener, for the sake of everyone involved.


  1. The point is the Palestinians need to compromise, too. I should point out that in view of all the torrents of ink spilled over the last two weeks about supposed Israeli obduracy, the real elephant in the room has been curiously ignored: the absent Palestinians. Without them, proximity talks simply aren't going to happen. As the old saying has it, it takes two to tango and Israel can't make peace all by itself.

  2. The part of article 49 to which Greener is referring is not the paragraph at the beginning of the article that you quoted but the paragraph at the end that reads:

    "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

    This is more relevant but still ambiguous -- it is not at all clear if it forbids voluntary migration or only involuntary "transfer".

    I think that actually the situation is even murkier. I do not have a source but my memory is that the last paragraph in article 49 was added almost as an afterthought and that it is not clear if the body adopting it themselves even had a clear idea of what it was supposed to mean. It may have referred to attempts by occupying powers to rid themselves of minorities that they might feel belonged in the occupied territory, maybe by virtue of a shared ethnicity with the inhabitants of the territory.


  3. The problem is that the Geneva Convention doesn't even apply. The convention, like all international conventions, binds the signatories, which are sovereign states. In fact by its very terms, it applies to the territories of High Contracting Parties. The PLO is not a sovereign state. Jordan is a sovereign state, but disclaimed territorial interest in the west bank in 1988, and again in 1994.

  4. DavidS,

    That is a good point. However, if you look it up, the whole meaning behind the word “transfer” is that it means a higher power or governmental authority is doing it, not the people themselves.

    It has always meant transfer by the government, which has never been happening here. And I have trouble believing that the word "transfer" was not used intentionally.

  5. Zach,

    I had not thought about the implications of the word "transfer" that you are bringing out. Of course, one does not "transfer" oneself; one is "transferred" by another.

    This is really a different question from the question of whether or not the population movement is voluntary. Bizarrely, if one were to follow such reasoning, it would imply that the outposts that are illegal under Israeli law would, by virtue of the fact that they were clearly not set up by the Israeli government, be legal under the Geneva conventions, while the settlements set up by the Israeli government might be illegal under the Geneva conventions because they *were* set up by the Israeli govenment.

    To me, this just shows silliness of relying on legalism to settle what is fundamentally a political problem. The rational objection to the settlements, at least the ones that are deep in the west bank, is that they are a (partial) barrier to either a two-state solution or a Jordanian solution. Of course, they are only a barrier if one assumes that any territory that is passed to either a Palestinian state or to Jordan must be emptied of Jews, but that is a whole other subject.