It is very popular worldwide to object to what is often called “The Israeli Settlements” in the regions of Judea and Samaria (what some call the “West Bank”, hereinafter the “Territories”). At first glance those towns and cities may seem similar to well known cases of western oppression from recent history, allegedly the same story retold about the European colonialists who oppress the indigenous population. In this article I will argue that contrary to the intuitive picture of a “black and white” story, depicting the bad guys vs. the good guys, there is more to tell about this matter (although it is not as complicated as some argue) and I hereby invite you to take a second glance at the residents of the Territories, including its Israeli residents, and reconsider the picture that was caught in your first glance.
Defining the Terms Indigenous and Colony
When a status (Indigenous or Colonialist) is used in order to classify individuals, an objective standard is required, otherwise the status will have little meaning and reflect subjective agendas rather than an objective state of affairs. In order to objectively compare the status of the Israeli and Palestinian residents of the Territories we first have to define objective standards for the aforementioned statuses and then try to apply them to the residents.
The word ‘indigenous’ is derived from Latin ‘indigena’, which means ‘native‘. The modern term ‘Indigenous Peoples” is commonly used in legal and political contexts to describe peoples with historical ties to a particular territory, and a cultural or historical distinctiveness from those of the dominant societies in which they live.
The word ‘colony’ is derived from the Latin ‘colonia‘, which means settled or cultivated land. Today it is used to describe a group of people that settled in a foreign land outside their country.
Who is indigenous to Judea and Samaria and who is a Colonist?
It is undeniable that both Jews and Arabs have strong historical ties to the Territories, that of the Jews starting in the early Iron Age (circa 1200 BCE) and that of the Arabs in the Middle Ages (circa 634 CE). While the Arab Palestinians are culturally distinct from the Jews of Israel (who are the majority in the country), no one can ignore the fact that the Territories and the entire land of Israel were historically and culturally considered a part of a greater region, a region that in almost every point of time throughout history was controlled by one political entity that was later replaced by another. Starting with the Egyptian Empire (non-Arabic ancestors of the Copts) during the Bronze Age, the list is as follows: the Kingdom of Israel in the Iron Age, the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, Macedonia and the Hellenistic Seleucids, the Hashmonean Dynasty (Judea), the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, Rashidun Caliphate (first Arab presence in the region)…Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Abbasid Caliphate….Ottoman Empire, British Mandate and the contemporary state of Israel. The ancient Egyptians called the region (which included today’s Jordan, Israel and parts of Syria and Lebanon) ‘Canaan’; the Romans called it ‘Syria-Palaestina’ and the Arabs called the region (and pan-Arabs still do), including the entire fertile crescent, ‘Ash-Sham’. When looking at the entire region, and not only at the small state of Israel, it is clear that the Jews can also be considered a minority group which is culturally distinct from the Arab majority of the region. When the conflict was first escalated into a full scale war and later in the consequent Arab-Israeli wars, the conflict was between the Israelis and its surrounding Arab neighbors and was not limited to the Israelis and Palestinians. To a certain extent the involvement of Arab countries in the conflict is still relevant and ongoing today. Moreover, if the Palestinians insist on relating to the Territories as a separate region from Israel, the Jewish residents of the Territories should be considered a minority in these Territories, since they are fewer than the Arab residents.
So far we have established that both Jews and Arabs have strong historical and cultural ties to the region, but are they both ‘natives’? in order to answer this question we first must set forth an objective standard for nativity. Is nativity determined based on a historical standard or contemporary? in other words, should the standard be the place of birth or lineage? if the standard is the place of birth then both Palestinians and Israelis who live in the Territories are natives. When people hear the term ‘settlements’ they think of newly settled towns inhabited by foreigners, but in fact Jews inhabited Gush Etzion and East Jerusalem before the war of 1948, when they were expelled by the Arab Legion and before 1929 Jews also lived in Hebron and Gaza (see also Wikipedia) and other parts of the Territories before they were massacred and expelled by their Arab neighbors. This is evident in a British report to the League of Nations from 31 December, 1929 which states in Section 15 that:
The Collective Punishments Ordinances were applied to the towns and villages whose inhabitants were guilty of participation in the concerted attacks on Jews at Hebron, Safad, Motza, Artuf, Beer Tuvia
We have seen that both Arabs and Jews lived in the Territories before 1948; even if we ignore these facts, or try to distinct Hebron, Gush Etzion and Jerusalem from Israeli towns established after 1967, we should keep in mind that for years new Israeli towns were not established in the territories, most of which were established years ago, shortly after the 1967 war. Although once in a while additional Israelis elect to relocate into these existing towns and cities and some expansion within municipal borders (only in area C) takes place, many of the Israeli residents of the Territories are second and third generation residents, meaning that they grew up in the region since birth. Thus, even if we ignore the aforementioned historical review and assume that the first generation of Israelis who relocated to and resettled the Settlements after 1967 should be considered as ‘colonists’, we should ask whether their descendants should also be considered as colonists by virtue of their descent. If the answer is yes then we cannot avoid the conclusion that the Arabs in the region are also colonists, since the first Arab presence in the region started with the invading Rashidun Caliphate during the Muslim Conquests, almost two millennia after Jews already inhabited this land. To shortly summarize, when we apply the same standards for the status of Jewish and Arab residents in the Territories we get to the conclusion that if the Jews are colonists then the Arabs are colonists as well and if the Arabs are natives then the Jews are natives as well.
Normative Arguments and Human Rights
Some argue that: the Israeli towns in the Territories are the reason for the Israeli military regime over areas B and C in the territories; the presence of the Israeli towns in the Territories prevents the establishment of a Palestinian state; it deprives Palestinians from their rights to property and freedom and promotes human rights violations. We will shortly review all of these arguments, but first we must distinct between individual rights and collective rights, clearing the political issues out of the normative discussion and keeping the human rights issues in.
Collective and Individual “Rights”
There is a difference between collective rights and individual rights. The first are mostly political, for example the right to self determination and collective sovereignty over the land of a certain region, these rights affect human rights only in an indirect manner. The latter are core human rights, including the right to life, property and freedom. It is unarguable that the Palestinians should not be deprived of their individual rights. Although Israel’s conduct in that respect was many times far from perfect (especially that of the military regime), it is evident that Israel has recognized and to a certain extent makes efforts to protect the individual rights of Palestinians. The many petitions of Palestinians to the Israeli High Court of Justice against the route of the Security Fence are a good example to that:
The three-judge panel, headed by Chief Justice Dorit Beinish, unanimously accepted an appeal petition by the head of the Bil’in local council against the route of the fence and its presence on land belonging to the village. They ordered defense planners to change the barrier’s route so it causes less harm to the village’s residents
Another good example are Palestinian petitions against land appropriation, like the Elon Moreh case:
it had ruled in favour of the petition by residents of the Arab village of Rujeib in Samaria against the government’s decision to appropriate their lands to establish a Jewish settlement called Elon Moreh, and ordered that the land be returned to the petitioners within one month.
Israel has also recognized and granted the Palestinians self governing rights in area A of the Territories, where most Palestinians live and there are no Israelis. Pursuant to the Oslo accords Israel has military and civil control over area C, where only about 50,000 Palestinians live next to about 350,000 Israelis (not including East Jerusalem). But contrary to the individual right to property, the question whether the Palestinians have a collective national right to a region free of Jews in area C or sovereignty over the entire Territories is a political question to be determined by the political powers (Israel and the Palestinian Authority). If Israel should do more to protect individual rights of Palestinians (human rights), it should be done irrespectively of the question which political entity should be the sovereign over which part of the Territories, in other words it has nothing to do with their collective rights.
To the extent that you are still convinced that collective rights are important and that the Palestinians do have such rights over the Territories, It still doesn’t make sense to argue that the presence of Jewish or Israeli residents in the Territories will prevent the establishment of a future Palestinian state, the same way the Arab citizens of Israel do not prevent the existence of Israel. If what the Palestinians want is peace and co-existence, why should it bother them to have Jewish citizens in a future Palestinian state? after all, Jews used to live in the Territories before they were expelled by the Arabs, do the Palestinian collective rights include the right for race purification and ethnic cleansing? the right to apartheid? individuals are not proxies of a state or any political entity, but are just human beings who maintain their center of life in the Territories, if there will be peace there shouldn’t be a problem for individuals to keep their individual rights (property in the Territories for example) although the collective rights may shift (sovereignty over the Territories). No one expects the Israeli Arabs to be expelled from Israel upon the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The military regime in the Territories is meant to protect Israel proper and not specifically the Israeli residents of the Territories. Before 1967, when Israel took the control over the Territories from Jordan and as we have seen above even before 1948, when Israel was established (1921, 1929 and 1936 riots), when there were no “settlements” the Arabs of the region prosecuted the Jews. The Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem even cooperated with the Nazis, a cooperation that brought forth Operation ATLAS, in which Nazi and Palestinian operatives attempted to poison the water system that flowed to Tel-Aviv (where Jews lived). The Gaza pullout is a good study case to what could happen if Israel draws out its forces from the Territories, only tenfold (due to the proximity, control over 80% of the region’s water supply and the strategic vantage point of controlling the mountainous region). In 2005 Israel pulled out all of its forces from Gaza and also evacuated Israeli citizens from the region around the strip, but instead of pacifying the Palestinians it only gave rise to increased Palestinian attacks and the presence of global jihad and Iranian agents in Gaza.
I think that It is twisted to blame the “settlements” for the military regime instead of asking why is there need for the presence of the military in the first place to protect civilians? why can’t the Palestinians accept the presence of Jews among them in the Territories? how does supporting apartheid and ethnic cleansing of Jews from the region promotes peace or human rights? why should civilians who were born and grew up in a certain region be kicked out only due to their Jewishness?
Objecting to the military rule in the Territories is not equal to objection to the presence of Jewish civilians, and while we can argue about the need and purpose of the first, objecting to the latter is based on racism and amounts to ethnic cleansing. If you believe that the first is needed to enable the latter than it shows that you believe the Palestinians aspire to prosecute Jews and ethnically cleanse the region from their presence, just like they did in Gaza and Hebron in 1929, this is the real human rights violation problem here and not the very presence of those who will be prosecuted.
Adverse Effect on Human Rights
It is important to remember that most Palestinians live in area A and that the IDF does not control this area, which is under Palestinian civil and military control. In area C where most Jews live, there are only about 50,000 Palestinians, thus to the extent that the presence of Israelis in the Territories have a detrimental effect on Palestinian human rights it is relevant only to about 50,000 Palestinians and not to the majority of the population (not that this justifies human rights violation against this group of 50,000 people).
Before we expand on the situation of these 50,000 Palestinian residents, it is important to review the general situation of the Palestinian residents of the Territories. The CIA World Fact Book shows that the death rate of Palestinians in the Territories is place 214 in the world, lower than Russia, Hungary, Germany and Sweden; life expectancy is place 92, which is higher than Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Estonia and Russia and infant mortality is place 120, which is lower than Turkey, Jordan, Georgia and Morocco.
Lets go back to the lives of the 50,000 Palestinians who live in towns located in area C side by side with Israeli towns. It may seem twisted that in some areas different laws govern those 50,000 Palestinians and the Israelis who live in towns next to them, but before expanding on that matter it must be noted that among the Israeli “settlers” there are also Arab Israelis, including the self acclaimed “Palestinian Patriot” MK Ahmad Tibi who resides in East Jerusalem and many Arab students who study in the University of Judea and Samaria in the city of Ariel, where many of them live. Although the Palestinians do not see them as such, but only the Jewish residents, another evidence to the racist agenda behind the objection to the “settlements”. In my opinion it is in the benefit of both parties to have an increased economic and cultural exchange, and the proximity in the Territories enables that. Real peace will not come from ethnic cleansing or apartheid but from increased non-political ties between civilians from both sides, commercial, academic, cultural etc. (see my discussion in this blog post).
Now back to the differences in status between the Israeli and 50,000 Palestinian residents of area C. As we have seen above, the Israeli residents include Arab Israeli residents who have the same legal status as Jewish Israeli residents, hence any accusations of apartheid in the Territories are far from the truth. In addition, the general laws applied by the Israeli military regime in area C are based on Jordanian and Ottoman law (the legal regimes that preexisted in the Territories), since the Territories were not annexed by Israel. These laws, that regulate for example the ownership and acquisition of land and the construction of houses apply equally to Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, in some aspects they are in favor of the Palestinians and discriminate the Israelis. For example, pursuant to Ottoman law ownership rights in Miri land (land that is 2.5 kilometers from the edge of any built-up area, reflecting the commons for agriculture and pasture lands) may be acquired by cultivating it for ten years without objection, yet the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that while this right applies to Palestinians, it does not apply to Israelis. Nevertheless, it is not right or optimal that Israeli civil jurisdiction will apply to people who are not represented in the Israeli parliament, but this does not mean that the remedy should be the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, when the right of representation for 50,000 Palestinians can be granted by the annexation of area C by Israel and granting its 50,000 Palestinians citizenship. Any one has the right to object to this idea based on his political agenda, but then his argument against the “settlements” will not be one of human and civil rights, but a political argument in respect of the collective “rights” over the Territories. A matter that is under dispute. Contrary to the right to representation, which the Palestinians who live withing their own autonomy in area A and Gaza do not have as well and not because of Israel but for their own internal reasons (since Hamas and Palestinian Authority do not hold periodic elections and preserve their power by force), this is a political issue and not one of human rights.