The creeping conquest of Palestine

July 19, 2012

Israel's illegal settlements in occupied territory--and the U.S. government's tolerance for them--are shining examples of the might-makes-right principle of colonialism.

ISRAEL'S PROJECT of colonial expansion has been thrust back onto the international stage by a report from a committee headed by a former Israeli Supreme Court justice recommending the legalization of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank.

In asserting that Israel is not an occupying force in the West Bank, the Levy report--as it's become known, after the head of the three-member committee, Edmund Levy--flies in the face of decades of Israeli court rulings and a substantial body of international law and United Nations resolutions. The practical consequence of this claim is that Israel would not face any legal hurdle to annexing the settlements to Israel or constructing further settlements.

The Levy report's dismissal of decades of legal precedent caused a ripple of alarm among politicians in Israel and the U.S.--not because they oppose Israel's continuation of its colonial project, of course, but because of the embarrassing attention it draws to the denial of basic rights to some 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank.

An Israeli girl walks past an illegal outpost of the Jewish settlement of Avnei Hefetz in the West Bank
An Israeli girl walks past an illegal outpost of the Jewish settlement of Avnei Hefetz in the West Bank (Gili Yaari)

"We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, and we oppose any effort to legalize settlement outposts," said a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, days before a trip to Israel by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The U.S. government has been officially opposed to Israel's settlements throughout the so-called peace process that began nearly 20 years ago--but Washington continued to give billions in aid annually to Israel, even as the settlement enterprise expanded massively.

Within Israel, opposition to the Levy report is also widespread, but it has a more explicitly racist character. "Israeli settlements located in populated Arab areas, as a response to their attacks on us, might bring a threatening demographic shift, meaning, jeopardize the Jewish majority in Israel," said Israeli President Shimon Peres. "[W]ithout a Jewish majority, there is a doubt the Jewish state will remain Jewish."

So while the consensus within both the U.S. and Israeli political establishments is to oppose the Levy report, Israel's strategy remains the same one that the report seeks to justify: extend its colonial grip over more and more land, while denying basic rights to the indigenous inhabitants of that land.

This is the crux of Israel's apartheid system and a critical part of the motivation for the growing global campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Despite the enthusiasm of those who hoped his administration would herald a new era for U.S. policy in the Middle East, Barack Obama has shown the same dedication to support for Zionism as his predecessors. This makes the growth of the BDS movement all the more essential to achieving a free Palestine.

THE PROBLEM with the Levy report among supporters of Israel is not the goal it sets--the further expansion of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank--but the strategy for achieving it. By jettisoning established legal precedent, the report's recommendations enmesh Israel in a mess of inconsistencies.

For example, if Israel is not an occupying force, then all the land in the West Bank seized on the grounds of "military necessity" under the Fourth Geneva Convention was seized improperly. But according to David Kretzmer, an Israeli professor of international law and author of The Occupation of Justice: The Supreme Court of Israel and the Occupied Territories, this is only one aspect of the problem:

The Levy report complains about inequality between Palestinians and Israelis. It cites Israel's Basic Law. But the real inequality on the West Bank is that the Israeli settlers have political rights in the state that controls their lives and the Palestinians do not. That is one of the grounds for the claim that the system there has elements of apartheid. If it accepts the Levy approach, the government will no longer be able to answer this claim by arguing that the territory is subject to a temporary regime of belligerent occupation. Either Israel's government will have to acknowledge that apartheid is living and kicking, or it will have to extend political rights to all Palestinian residents of the West Bank.

Extending political rights to all Palestinians is precisely the "demographic threat" that the Zionist establishment can't tolerate. In a debate with pro-Israel hack Jonathan Tobin on Democracy Now!, Palestinian author and activist Ali Abunimah illustrated this point:

[Shimon Peres'] statement calling Palestinian babies a so-called demographic threat really reveals the Jim Crow-like racism at the core of this Zionist ideology that views the mere existence of Palestinian babies in their own native land as a threat to Israel. How can Palestinians ever possibly recognize or give legitimacy to an entity which views their mere reproduction as human beings as a mortal threat?

It's time for Mr. Tobin and all the fans of this apartheid, racist, Jim Crow tyranny to make good on their claimed liberal and progressive values and oppose Israeli apartheid and accept the inevitable, which is that--just like in the Jim Crow South, just like in apartheid South Africa--one day there is going to be equal rights for everyone between the river and the sea.

THE GROWTH of Israeli settlements has been incredible. In 1972, there were nearly 10,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. In 2012, there were more than 500,000. All this is despite the fact that the Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly forbids an occupying power to "transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

Throughout that entire period, Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. The Obama administration continued this trend--something to remember the next time you hear a right winger denounce Obama as "anti-Israel."

In 2010, the Obama administration requested that Israel extend its 2010 moratorium on settlement construction for two months in exchange for upgraded weapons systems, even more military and financial aid, and a pledge to veto any UN Security Council resolution on the Israel-Palestine conflict for a full year. Prime Minister Netanyahu rejected this offer.

In other words, the U.S. offered Israel a slew of financial and political favors to stop violating international law for two months--and Israel said no thanks. Obama then quietly dropped all of his demands.

So it should come as no surprise that Israel has become even more brazen in its drive to colonize the West Bank. A few of its most recent atrocities include the confiscation of water tanks that dozens of families depend upon for drinking and irrigation, the establishment of the first Israeli university in a settlement and the continuing construction of the apartheid wall, despite the 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that it must be dismantled. According to the ICJ ruling:

The Court considers that the construction of the wall and its associate regime creates a 'fait accompli' on the ground that could well become permanent, in which case, and notwithstanding the formal characterization by Israel, it would be tantamount to de facto annexation...That construction, along with measures previously taken, thus severely impeded the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination.

THE ARAB uprisings that began more than a year ago upended longstanding dictators backed by the U.S. in Tunisia and Egypt. But during Hillary Clinton's recent trip to Egypt, she said she received a pledge from newly elected President Mohamed Morsi to continue the siege of Gaza--imposed by Israel and the U.S., but made possible by the complicity of Egypt, which borders Gaza to the south. If the blockade continues, so will the humanitarian crisis that grips the densely populated strip of land.

Morsi's refusal to represent the overwhelming majority of opinion in Egypt to end the siege shows why progress in winning equal rights for Palestinians depends on the continued growth of the global BDS movement. The most recent success was the Presbyterian Church's passage this month of a resolution calling on all nations to "prohibit the import of products made by enterprises in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land."

The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) welcomed the development:

The strongly worded resolution also calls upon all countries to ban the import of such products until Palestinians are able to realize their rights and achieve independence. This decision marks an important milestone in the march of mainline churches in the U.S. towards holding Israel accountable for its occupation, violations of international law and denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination.

A few weeks earlier, the campaign spearheaded by Jewish Voice for Peace to encourage pension giant TIAA-CREF to divest funds from companies profiting from Israel's illegal occupation won a major victory when the company sold more than $72 million of Caterpillar shares from its social choice funds. Caterpillar supplies the Israeli military with specially equipped bulldozers used in the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank.

The Arab Spring has weakened a string of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East allied with the U.S.--making Washington even more reliant on Israel as its chief ally in an oil-rich and strategically critical part of the world. With the growing crisis in Syria and ongoing Israeli-U.S. bullying of Iran, the U.S. seems poised to continue its support for Israel whatever the cost.

But in seven years, the BDS movement has won an incredible number of victories, especially when compared to the accomplishments of two decades of the U.S.-brokered "peace process." The continuing growth of this movement is thus essential--not only for justice for Palestinians, but as part of the larger struggle to challenge U.S. domination of the Middle East.

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