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Israel’s land-rights problem November 29, 2006

Posted by jaldenh in James Carroll.
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By James Carroll  November 27, 2006 

THE WORSENING conflict between Israelis and Palestinians reached a rare point of clarification last week, but an ominous one. It involved leaked Israeli government documents apparently showing that significant parts of Israeli settlements in the West Bank are on land unjustly appropriated from Palestinians.

“One Third of Jewish Area Is on Private Property,” read the Page 1 headline in The New York Times. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in “settlements” that are in politically disputed territory, but the Israeli government has long insisted that the private property rights of individual Palestinian owners have been respected. The official line is that settlements are only created on land that has been legally purchased. But is that so?

Complications of ownership records are part of the story, and so, perhaps, is occasional Palestinian reluctance to openly acknowledge the sale of land to the government of Israel. But the leaked report draws attention back, nevertheless, to the foundational mistake that Israel made decades ago — creating the massive settlements in the first place. Whether individual rights were respected or not, the communal rights of Palestinians were trashed. And now this injustice has backfired, with the ownership dispute laying bare Israel’s larger problem.

Surrounded by hostile populations across the region from the start, the State of Israel, by taking land after the 1967 war, licensed and funded settlements that drew that hostility right into the polity of Israel itself. Local Arab resentment reinforced Arab hatred everywhere.

The negative consequences of the settlements have been multi-faceted. The requirement to support the many Jewish settlers has led the government to create unequal civic institutions, like roads and water sources. Inequities in infrastructure contribute to steadily worsening Palestinian conditions. Protection of settlers involves broad, and often cruel, restrictions on Palestinians. The plight of their cousins in occupied territories has pushed Arab Israelis further away from any identification with Israel. Many Israeli Jews, including members of the Israel Defense Forces, refuse to associate with their government’s settlement policies. The inequities fuel local rage among Palestinians, and regional resentment among Arabs.

The fact that the settlements apparently violate individual Arab property rights only exacerbates the broader violation of Palestinian territorial claims. But from the point of view of Israel, the most important fact may be that all of this, undertaken in the name of security, has probably done more to jeopardize the future of the democratic Jewish state than anything its enemies have done.

Among the factors that derailed the so-called peace process across the years was the on going Israeli expansion of settlements, despite agreements to stop. The integrity of Israel’s word was compromised, and its goodwill was questioned. Settlement construction, especially in the environs of Jerusalem, amounted to a radical prejudicing of any conceivable end-game agreement.

Now, with the controversial security barrier, which amounts in many places to a huge cement wall, Israel is openly appropriating disputed land precisely to protect major settlement enclaves. That wall-and-fence is justified as a block to terrorist incursions, and may be succeeding as such, but it also amounts to a unilaterally drawn de facto border. The barrier makes Israel’s initial self-defeating mistake a permanent one. That such a construction could enhance Israel’s long-term security is shown to be folly by this year’s mobilization from Lebanon and Gaza of relentless rocket fire. No wall will stop that.

Today’s Middle East is marked by political despair. In the near term, no benign outcomes suggest themselves in Iraq or in Lebanon. Syria and Iran are poised for further mischief. Palestinians are led by factions that regard one another as enemies. Israelis have reason to feel isolated and threatened, especially after their government’s wild miscalculations last summer, and the repetition of such miscalculations in Gaza. But the impasse need not last forever, and the greatest mistake would be to shape policy as if it will.

The security barrier must not be accepted as a border. Early Israeli government definitions of the barrier as temporary must be insisted upon. Its route, even temporary, should be redrawn to respect Palestinian rights and requirements. Palestinian property claims should be adjudicated promptly. Extremist calls for the “removal” of Palestinians from Israeli areas must not be allowed to become mainstream.

Today, there may be, as many Israelis insist, no partner with whom to make peace, but no actions should be taken that make the emergence of such a partner impossible.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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