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Facts & Myths

MYTH

Israel has no right to be in the West Bank. Israeli settlements are illegal.

FACT

Jews have lived in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since ancient times. The only time Jews have been prohibited from living in the territories in recent decades was during Jordan's rule from 1948 to 1967. This prohibition was contrary to the Mandate for Palestine adopted by the League of Nations, which provided for the establishment of a Jewish state, and specifically encouraged "close settlement by Jews on the land."

Numerous legal authorities dispute the charge that settlements are "illegal." International law scholar Stephen Schwebel notes that a country acting in self-defense may seize and occupy territory when necessary to protect itself. Schwebel also observes that a state may require, as a condition for its withdrawal, security measures designed to ensure its citizens are not menaced again from that territory.1

According to Eugene Rostow, a former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the Johnson Administration, Resolution 242 gives Israel a legal right to be in the West Bank. The resolution "allows Israel to administer the territories" it won in 1967 "until 'a just and lasting peace in the Middle East' is achieved," Rostow wrote.

MYTH

Settlements are an obstacle to peace.

FACT

Settlements have never been an obstacle to peace. From 1949-67, when Jews were forbidden to live on the West Bank, the Arabs refused to make peace with Israel. From 1967-77, the Labor Party established only a few strategic settlements in the territories, yet the Arabs showed no interest in making peace with Israel.

In 1977, months after a Likud government committed to greater settlement activity took power, Egyptian President Sadat went to Jerusalem. Incidentally, Israeli settlements existed in the Sinai and those were removed as part of the peace agreement with Egypt.

One year later, Israel froze settlement building for three months, hoping the gesture would entice other Arabs to join the Camp David peace process. But none would.

In 1994, Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel and settlements were not an issue. If anything, the number of Jews living in the territories was growing.

Settlement activity may be a stimulus to peace because it forced the Palestinians and other Arabs to reconsider the view that time is on their side. References are frequently made in Arabic writings to how long it took to expel the Crusaders and how it might take a similar length of time to do the same to the Zionists. The growth in the Jewish population in the territories forced the Arabs to question this tenet. "The Palestinians now realize," said Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, "that time is now on the side of Israel, which can build settlements and create facts, and that the only way out of this dilemma is face-to-face negotiations."3 Consequently, the Arabs went to Madrid and Washington for peace talks despite continued settlement activity. And all of the agreements signed with the Palestinians as part of the "Oslo process" have been negotiated without any change in Israel's settlement policy.

The question of settlements is a matter for the final status negotiations. The question of where the final border will be between Israel and a Palestinian entity will likely be influenced by the distribution of these Jewish towns. Israel wants to incorporate as many as possible within its borders while the Palestinians want to expel all Jews from the territory they control.

MYTH

The Geneva Convention prohibits the construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territories.

FACT

The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the forcible transfer of people of one state to the territory of another state that it has occupied as a result of a war. The intention was to insure that local populations who came under occupation would not be forced to move. This is in no way relevant to the settlement issue. Jews are not being forced to go to the West Bank and Gaza Strip; on the contrary, they are voluntarily moving back to places where they, or their ancestors, once lived before being expelled by others. In addition, those territories never legally belonged to either Jordan or Egypt, and certainly not to the Palestinians who were never the sovereign authority in any part of Palestine. "The Jewish right of settlement in the area is equivalent in every way to the right of the local population to live there," according to Professor Eugene Rostow, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs.

The settlements also do not displace Arabs living in the territories. The media sometimes gives the impression that for every Jew who moves to the West Bank, several hundred Palestinians are forced to leave. The truth is that the vast majority of settlements have been built in uninhabited areas and even the handful established in or near Arab towns did not force any Palestinians to leave.

MYTH

Israel is provocatively settling Jews in predominantly Arab towns, and has established so many facts on the ground territorial compromise is no longer possible.

FACT

An estimated 80 percent of the settlers live in what are in effect suburbs of major Israeli cities such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These are areas that virtually the entire Jewish population believes Israel must retain to ensure its security.

Strategic concerns have led both Labor and Likud governments to establish settlements. The objective is to secure a Jewish majority in key strategic regions of the West Bank, such as the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor, the scene of heavy fighting in several Arab-Israeli wars. Still, when Arab-Israeli peace talks began in late 1991, more than 80 percent of the West Bank contained no settlements or only sparsely populated ones.

Today, approximately 200,000 Jews live in roughly 150 communities in the West Bank. The overwhelming majority of these settlements have fewer than 1,000 citizens. Analysts have noted that 80 percent of the Jews could be brought within Israel's borders with minor modifications of the "Green Line" (the unofficial boundary after 1967).

MYTH

Israel must evacuate all Jewish settlements before a final peace agreement can be achieved with the Palestinians.

FACT

The implication of many settlement critics is that it would be better for peace if the West Bank were Judenrein (empty of Jews). This idea would be called anti-Semitic if Jews were barred from living in New York, Paris or London; barring them from living in the West Bank, the cradle of Jewish civilization, would be no less objectionable.

Any peace settlement would inevitably permit Jews who preferred to live outside the State of Israel under Palestinian authority to live in the West Bank just as Arabs today live in Israel. No Israeli government would be expected to enforce the kind of policies instituted by the British by which large areas of Palestine were declared off-limits to Jews.

MYTH

At Camp David, during Jimmy Carter's presidency, Israel agreed to halt the construction of settlements for five years. Within months, Israel had violated the accords by establishing new settlements on the West Bank.

FACT

The five-year period agreed to at Camp David was the time allotted to Palestinian self-government in the territories. The Israeli moratorium on West Bank settlements agreed to by Prime Minister Menachem Begin was only for three months. Begin kept this agreement.

Israel's position on the matter received support from an unexpected source: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who said: "We agreed to put a freeze on the establishment of settlements for the coming three months, the time necessary in our estimation for signing the peace treaty."

The Palestinians rejected the Camp David Accords and therefore the provisions related to them were never implemented. Had they accepted the terms offered by Begin, it is very likely the self-governing authority would have developed long before now into the state the Palestinians say they desire.

MYTH

U.S. loan guarantees provided Israel with billions of dollars from American taxpayers that was used to build settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to house Soviet Jews.

FACT

Since 1989, approximately one million Jews have immigrated to Israel. The majority, roughly 80 percent, have come from the former Soviet Union. Israel must provide these immigrants with food, shelter, employment and training. The task is even more challenging when it comes to absorbing Jews from relatively undeveloped countries like Ethiopia, who often must be taught everything from using a flush toilet to how to withdraw money from a bank. To meet these challenges, Israel has invested billions of dollars. In addition, the American Jewish community has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars through the United Jewish Appeal’s Operation Exodus campaign and other philanthropies.

Still, the task was so daunting, Israel turned to the United States for help. To put the challenge in perspective, consider that the United States a country of 250 million people and a multi-trillion dollar GNP admits roughly 125,000 refugees a year. In 1990 alone, nearly 200,000 Jews immigrated to Israel.

The United States led the Free World in helping secure the freedom of Soviet Jews. Since 1972, Congress has appropriated funds to help resettle Soviet Jews in Israel. Since 1992, $80 million has been earmarked for this purpose.

After the Soviet Union opened its gates, the trickle of immigrants became a flood immigration from that country skyrocketed from fewer than 13,000 people in 1989 to more than 185,000 in 1990. Israel then asked for a different type of help. The United States responded in 1990 by approving $400 million in loan guarantees to help Israel house its newcomers.

Guarantees are not grants not one penny of U.S. government funds is transferred to Israel. The U.S. simply cosigns loans for Israel that give bankers confidence to lend Israel money at more favorable terms: lower interest rates and longer repayment periods as much as 30 years instead of only five to seven. These loan guarantees have no effect on domestic programs or guarantees. Moreover, they have no impact on U.S. taxpayers unless Israel were to default on its loans, something it has never done. In addition, much of the money Israel borrows is spent in the United States to purchase American goods.

When it became clear the flood of refugees was even greater than anticipated, and tens of thousands continued to arrive every month, Israel realized it needed more help and asked the United States for an additional $10 billion in guarantees.

In 1992, Congress authorized the President to provide guarantees of loans to Israel made as a result of Israel's extraordinary humanitarian effort to resettle and absorb immigrants. These guarantees were made available in annual increments of $2 billion over five years. While the cost to the U.S. government was zero, Israel paid the United States annual fees amounting to several hundred million dollars to cover administrative and other costs.

Under existing guidelines, no U.S. foreign assistance to Israel can be used beyond Israel's pre-1967 borders. Moreover, to underline dissatisfaction with Israel’s settlement policies, the President was authorized to reduce the annual loan guarantees by the amount equal to the estimated value of Israeli activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip undertaken the previous year.

Thus, as the table indicates, the State Department determined that Israel spent just under $1.4 billion for settlement activity from 1993-1996. The President was authorized, however, to rescind deductions when making the funds available to Israel was in the security interests of the United States. President Clinton used this authority in the last three years of the program, so the actual reduction in the amount of guarantees available to Israel was $773.8 million.

The money related to settlements also had nothing to do with the new immigrants, none of whom were forced to live in the territories. In fact, only a tiny percentage chose to do so.

By all measures, the U.S. loan guarantee program was a huge success. Israel used the borrowed funds primarily to increase the amount of foreign currency available to the country’s business sector and to support infrastructure projects, such as roads, bridges, sewage and electrical plants. The guarantees also helped Israel to provide housing and jobs for virtually all of the new immigrants. Unemployment among immigrants, which peaked at 35 percent, has dropped to 6 percent, roughly the same rate as for the rest of the population.

Besides contributing to Israel's success in absorbing immigrants while maintaining economic growth, the loan guarantee program also sent a strong message to the private international capital markets about the confidence the U.S. has in Israel's ability to bear this potential economic burden. Consequently, Israel's credit rating was upgraded and Israel can borrow hundreds of millions of dollars in international financial markets on its own.

MYTH

Israel has no right to build homes in Har Homa because it is part of Arab East Jerusalem and is yet another settlement project that will impede peace.

FACT

Building in Har Homa represents the last phase of a larger municipal housing plan for the city of Jerusalem begun in 1968. The entire area of Har Homa is less than 460 acres. When the project began, it was completely vacant and is not adjacent to any Arab population.

The original decision to go forward with construction on Har Homa was made by Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 1996; construction did not proceed because the issue was tied up in Israeli courts. The Israeli Supreme Court rejected appeals by both Jewish and Arab landowners and approved the expropriation of land for the project. The expropriations were undertaken on the basis of the fundamental common law principle of eminent domain, allowing governments to expropriate land from private owners for public use. Most of the land 75% was expropriated from Jews.

The construction plan was approved by the Netanyahu government after the Court's ruling to address a severe housing shortage among both Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem. The project will ultimately include 6,500 housing units, as well as schools, parks, public buildings and commercial and industrial zones. Construction plans for 3,015 housing units in 10 Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem will be implemented simultaneously with the Har Homa project.

I believe that we should annex the Har Homa neighborhood, a neighborhood against which my movement fought a stupid campaign. Har Homa has a territorial contiguity with the State of Israel. To say that Har Homa disturbs the contiguity of the Palestiian territory, and to turn this in to a possible cause for war is rubbish, it's stupidity.

Peace Now leader Professor Amiram Goldblum


Nothing in any of the agreements signed between the Palestinians and Israelis preclude building in Jerusalem. Both Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres made clear they had no intention of refraining from building in Jerusalem and never slowed down the pace of construction in the capital. Different sides of the Israeli political spectrum, including many Labor Party leaders, urged the Netanyahu government to proceed with the Har Homa project.

The Palestinians have also claimed that Har Homa will isolate them from the West Bank or limit their access to Jerusalem. When Har Homa is completed, however, considerable areas of territorial continuity between the Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem and the Palestinian areas of the West Bank will remain. Palestinians will also have the same access to Jerusalem they presently enjoy.

MYTH

The Mitchell Report made clear that Israeli settlement policy is as much to blame for the breakdown of the peace process as Palestinian violence and that a settlement freeze is necessary to end the violence.

FACT

In November 2000, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was appointed to lead a fact-finding committee to investigate the cause of the "al-Aksa Intifada" and explore how to prevent future violence. The report his committee issued did recommend a settlement freeze as one of more than 15 different confidence-building measures but Mitchell and Warren Rudman, another member of the committee, made clear that settlement activity was in no way equated with Palestinian terrorism. They explicitly stated in a letter clarifying their view: "We want to go further and make it clear that we do not in any way equate Palestinian terrorism with Israeli settlement activity, 'seemingly' or otherwise."

Mitchell and Rudman also disputed the idea that the cessation of settlement construction and terrorism were linked. "The immediate aim must be to end the violence....Part of the effort to end the violence must include an immediate resumption of security cooperation between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority aimed at preventing violence and combating terrorism." They added, "Regarding terrorism, we call upon the Palestinian Authority, as a confidence-building measure, to make clear through concrete action, to Israelis and Palestinians alike, that terror is reprehensible and unacceptable, and the Palestinian Authority is to make a total effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators acting in its jurisdiction."

MYTH

Defense of settlements are nothing more than rationalizations for the perpetual occupation of the Palestinian people and their land.

FACT

While making a strong case for its right to the territories, the Israeli government also acknowledges that Palestinians have legitimate claims to the area and that a compromise can be reached through negotiations:

Politically, the West Bank and Gaza Strip is best regarded as territory over which there are competing claims which should be resolved in peace process negotiations. Israel has valid claims to title in this territory based not only on its historic and religious connection to the land, and its recognized security needs, but also on the fact that the territory was not under the sovereignty of any state and came under Israeli control in a war of self-defense, imposed upon Israel. At the same time, Israel recognizes that the Palestinians also entertain legitimate claims to the area. Indeed, the very fact that the parties have agreed to conduct negotiations on settlements indicated that they envisage a compromise on this issue.

In fact, Prime Minister Barak reportedly offered to give up more than 100 settlements, about two-thirds of the total, and to give the Palestinians control of roughly 96 percent of the West Bank. The Palestinians rejected the proposal.

MYTH

The peace agreements Israel signed with the Palestinians prohibit settlement activity.

FACT

Neither the Declaration of Principles of September 13, 1993, nor the Interim Agreement contains any provisions prohibiting or restricting the establishment or expansion of Jewish communities in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. While a clause in the accords prohibits changing the status of the territories, it was intended to ensure only that neither side would take unilateral measures to alter the legal status of the areas (such as annexation or declaration of statehood).

MYTH

The Red Cross has declared that Israeli settlements are a war crime.

FACT

The Jerusalem representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Rene Kosimik, on May 17, 2001, said, "The installation of a population of the occupying power in occupied territory is considered an illegal move, it is a grave breach. In principal it is a war crime." Rep. Eliot Engel protested to the President of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger, who replied, "The expression 'war crime' has not been used by the ICRC in relation to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories in the past and will not be used anymore in the present context." He added, "The reference made to it on May 17 was inappropriate and will not be repeated."

MYTH

Prime Minister Sharon has accelerated the construction of settlements in the West Bank and thereby sent a message to Palestinians that he has no interest in peace.

FACT

As part of the coalition agreement he signed when he came to power in February 2001, Prime Minister Sharon said that no new settlements would be built. Construction was to be restricted to existing settlements to allow for natural growth of those communities. According to Peace Now, about 6,000 housing units, whose construction was begun under previous governments, are in various stages of completion. Roughly 80 percent of those are being built within three settlement blocs that the Palestinians agreed would remain intact during negotiations at Camp David and Taba. The final status of all the settlements is still to be determined in negotiations.

If settlement-building is now concentrated in areas that the Palestinians themselves acknowledge will remain part of Israel in any future peace agreement, why the obsessive focus on settlements as an 'obstacle to peace?'

Yossi Klein Halevi

Notes:
  1. American Journal of International Law, (April, 1970), pp. 345-46.
  2. New Republic, (October 21, 1991), p. 14.
  3. Washington Post, (November 1, 1991).
  4. American Journal of International Law, (1990, vol 84), p. 72.
  5. Jerusalem Post, (October 22, 1991).
  6. Middle East News Agency, (September 20, 1978).
  7. (Iton Yerushalaym, June 8, 2000)
  8. (Letter from George Mitchell and Warren Rudman to ADL Director Abraham Foxman, (May 11, 2001).
  9. Israeli Foreign Ministry, "Israeli Settlements and International Law," (May 2001).
  10. Jerusalem Post, (May 24, 2001).
  11. Los Angeles Times, (June 20, 2001).
  12. Los Angeles Times, (June 20, 2001).



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