Disagreements about the legitimacy of Israeli settlements, their effect on Israeli politics, and whether they are "obstacles to peace" are hotly-debated questions. A fair-minded and accurate discussion of the issues would be welcome. But Zertal, a historian at University of Basel, and Eldar, a columnist at Ha'aretz, authors of Lords of the Land, offer only a one-sided perspective to such questions as: How did Israel's settlement movement attract such overwhelming support across ideological and party lines, and what has been its impact on Israeli society?
The authors did little original research, instead relying on select left-wing newspaper articles, secondary sources, and tendentious reports. A book written on the premises of such material predictably blames Israel for almost everything. The authors argue that settlements are the primary cause of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, have undermined the rule of law, have subverted the democratic decision-making process in Israel, and "have brought Israeli democracy to the brink of an abyss."
Their book presents three major arguments: First, settlers tricked every Israeli government into acceding to their demands; second, settlers "stole Palestinian land" in the West Bank and Gaza; and third, Israel's "occupation" of these territories is illegal. The first charge is a conspiracy theory; the second and third rely on distortion and misinformation. Ironically, their arguments are often self refuting.
"The settlements," the authors contend, "flourished not only with the authorities' seal of approval but also with official encouragement and at the government's initiative." Yet, they themselves document the democratic and transparent process: budgets that were approved, allocated, and accounted properly; money spent to help citizens; banks that lent mortgages; residents who paid taxes, and municipal services provided. Everything was done legally, which explains why no criminal charges have ever been brought against anyone who assisted settlement-building.
All Israeli governments have supported settlements—which were permitted by the Oslo accords—because these reflected an Israeli consensus and, at least initially, enjoyed the backing of U.N. resolutions: U.N. Security Council resolution 242 (1967) demanded only that Israel "withdraw from territories" it conquered—deliberately omitting "the" to indicate Israel's right to settle in those territories.
By cherry-picking sources, Zertal and Eldar ill portray the nuance of the Israeli debate. Although the authors insist that "a majority of the country" is against settlements, recent polls show that 54 percent of Israeli Jews back settlements. Few would abandon settlements and return to the Green Line (the 1949 border), the "two-state solution."
The authors' condemnation of settlements as violations of international law is based on the Fourth Geneva convention, which states that "Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country … are prohibited … The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." Article 2 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that it applies "to cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party." But the West Bank and Gaza were not the territory of a High Contracting Party, so the convention is not applicable. Jordan's occupation of the West Bank was invalid under international law, as only Great Britain and Pakistan recognized it. And while Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip, it never laid claim to the region.
More problematic is the authors' charge that Jews "stole Palestinian lands," in reference to territory captured by Israel in 1967. This includes vast areas of "state land," unclaimed and designated as such under Ottoman/Turkish, British, and Jordanian rule. Palestine was never a sovereign, independent entity; the concept of a Palestinian people did not exist until quite recently. To suggest the entire West Bank is Palestinian accepts at face value a maximalist Palestinian claim that is not grounded in international law.
Using incomplete sources and unverified Arab claims, Zertal and Eldar wrongly state that most Israeli settlements were built on "private Palestinian land." A typical example of such inaccuracy was Peace Now's claim that 85 percent of Maale Adumim, a settlement a few kilometers east of Jerusalem, was built on private Palestinian land. Reported as fact by all major media at the time, the official figure turned out to be less than 1 percent. Most Arab claims cannot be substantiated or verified.
Likewise, Zertal and Eldar mischaracterize the parameters of the debate over so-called outposts, relatively new hilltop settlements. Despite Zertal and Eldar's blanket characterization of illegality, nearly all of the hundred or so sites are within the legal boundaries established by the government for communities. Moreover, it appears that authorization and approval were implicit when government ministries and public institutions including the Israel Defense Forces were involved.
Israel's repossession of its ancient homeland is unique in history. It did not acquire territory belonging to another country and, therefore, has not violated international law. Arabs were not dispossessed in 1967; Jews were allowed to build communities, significantly, in areas that had once been Jewish (e.g., Gush Etzion, Jerusalem, Hebron) and in areas many of which have biblical significance (e.g. Shilo, Bet El, Shechem/Nablus). The integrity of the state of Israel and the right of Jewish settlement, included in U.N. resolution 242, has been amply defended. The settlement issue, moreover, was never included in any negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Lords of the Land feeds the neurosis of Palestinian victimhood, a mindset that fuels terrorism and prevents the development of any positive alternatives. Promoting the notion that Jews "illegally occupy" and "steal Palestinian land" supports a libel that legitimizes terrorism and provides an excuse for genocide. Why, then, such hostility to Israeli settlements?
Blaming Israel for Palestinian terrorism and the failed peace process is irrational. Giving Palestinian terrorism political, economic, and social dimensions attempts to make sense out of the absurd, to explain what is so profoundly anti-human. Unable to accept terrorism, Zertal and Eldar transform the ideological and theological onslaught against Jews and a nominally Jewish state into a simpleminded dispute over land: land-for-peace and the two-state-solution.
Moshe Dann is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem and a former assistant professor of history at the City University of New York.