Israel’s settlements: What’s up with that?

Peter Beinart (who is now, loosely speaking, my boss), has raised a kerfluffle, something of a habit of his (see his 2010 essay, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, as well as the blog he edits at which I’m a columnist, Zion Square). He did this most recently on Sunday, by suggesting in the New York Times that supporters of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should boycott Israel’s West Bank settlements.

“Oh noes!” cried Israel’s ambassador to the US, and various prominent Jewish thinkers, “Beinart is radical! And boycotting Jews! And boycotting Jews [and here I quote Jeffrey Goldberg] is distasteful, for obvious historical reasons!” I’m not at all sure what historical reasons these may be, as Jews have rather a history of disagreeing with each other and acting on those disagreements, and “radical”? A man who attends an Orthodox synagogue and declares himself a pro-Israel Zionist? Words are, once again, drifting free of their moorings, but that’s par for the course in these arguments.

The simple truth is that a boycott of Israel’s settlements has been around for awhile. I’ve been boycotting settlement products since before I left Israel, in 1998. Peace Now called for a boycott last July, and many Israelis think that’s a dandy idea. But Peter has real buzz, between his about-to-be-released book, and the aforementioned blog project — so, you know: Cue the drama!

Of course, people have a right to differing views on the settlements and the efficacy and/or tastefulness of boycotting them. What really bothers me is that no one’s talking about the actual settlements.

So here’s a primer.

What are the settlements?

The settlements are roughly 220 communities built on the Palestinian side of the internationally-recognized border (or Green Line) between Israel and the West Bank (this doesn’t include Jewish “neighborhoods” on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem).

I say “roughly” because some settlements are “official,” built at the Israeli government’s behest, while nearly half (known as “outposts”) are illegal even in Israeli eyes but built with a wink and a nod from the government, and there’s a purposeful evasiveness about their numbers. A government appointed investigator found in 2005 that

the outposts are mostly established by bypassing procedure and violating the law, displaying false pretense towards some of the State authorities, and enjoying the cooperation of other authorities in harsh violation of the law.

Israel’s government agreed to act on that investigation’s findings, much as it committed itself to the US two years earlier (in the Road Map for Peace) to halting all settlement construction of any kind. It’s done neither. All settlements on Palestinian land are in blatant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states clearly that when one country occupies land in the course of a war, “the occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own population into the territories it occupies.”

Some 310,000 Israelis currently live in the West Bank — nearly triple the number who lived there in 1993, when Israel first committed itself (in the Oslo Accords) to negotiating a two-state peace with the Palestinians. There are also 196,000 Israelis living in Palestinian Jerusalem, up about 40,000 since Oslo.

The settlements come with a network of settler-only roads (that is: A segregated road system, and as in all things separate but equal, the roads are separate, but far from equal), as well as hundreds of roadblocks, some permanent, some “flying” (mobile, and erected without warning), intended to severely curtail Palestinian freedom of movement, while allowing complete freedom of movement for Israeli settlers.

All of this — from tiny hamlets to major towns, to the roads connecting them, to the roadblocks standing guard around them (not to mention the military standing actual guard), and the “separation barrier” (a huge concrete wall) that Israel has constructed, often deep inside Palestinian territory — has left the Palestinian West Bank pock-marked with Israeli “facts on the ground”: cold hard realities that will be very hard to overturn to allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state (see map, below — the blue dots are settlements).

And, you might imagine, it doesn’t come cheap: Israel spends $2.5 billion on the settlements annually. Moreover, successive governments have long given preferential treatment to the settlers — as but one example, in a country recently rocked by social unrest born in a chronic lack of affordable housing, just over 20% of government spending inside the Green Line goes toward residential construction, whereas in the settlements, residential construction accounts for nearly 45% of spending.

So, to sum up: The settlements – illegal, wildly expensive, and a literal barrier to peace. As I wrote once before, they are, in fact, the problem.

As my Twitter friend @dotanh reminded me: Boycotting settlements and settlement products isn’t even remotely about boycotting Jews. It’s about boycotting a system that is doing real, lasting damage to the Palestinian people, and to Israel itself.

And as Mother Jones writer Adam Serwer tweeted: “Put aside tactical considerations of Beinart’s [suggestion]. Who would want to consciously give the settlers a dime?”


  1. Dex

     /  March 20, 2012

    Thanks for posting this. I never really felt like I had a good place to go to get a good primer on this, and then here you are with this.

    (I’m crossing my fingers that this space doesn’t receive a lot of vicious blowback as a result of your larger audience, given the new gig.)

    • (Me, too, but here again we see the real beauty of every first comment going into moderation. If there is blowback, the public will never know. And I’ll get the not inconsiderable joy of spamming assholes).

  2. Bookwoman

     /  March 21, 2012

    What Dex said. We’re going to Israel (for the first time) in May. Beinart’s op-ed piece and your post above are giving us a lot of food for thought. It’s an interfaith trip, and the discussions should be very interesting.

    • Books! You need books!

      I would start with Adam Le Bor’s City of Oranges – it’s just really readable and tells the story through the social history of Jaffa, which makes it easier to take in. This is, after all, a story about people.

      Then, scroll through the books I recommend on my Israel/Palestine pages and pick what else makes sense, or something by David Grossman.

      The truth is that a little reading is all you need. People act like this conflict is crazy complicated, but it’s not really. It’s just very eventful. (You could also read my “The Basics” page, to get started).

      • Bookwoman

         /  March 22, 2012

        Thanks! Over the years I’ve read things like Fromkin’s A Peace to End all Peace, and books by Bernard Lewis and Thomas Friedman. But I need more up-to-date stuff, so these recommendations are really helpful.

  3. corkingiron

     /  March 21, 2012

    An excellent primer Emily, on a topic that far too often escapes discussion – especially the Israeli gov’t’s complicity in the settlement controversy. I hope you’ve got your ban-hammer polished and ready.

  4. SWNC

     /  March 21, 2012

    I want to echo the thanks of other commenters. If I may ask a really broad question, who are the settlers? Are they motivated primarily by religious beliefs or the desire for affordable housing or what? I ask because, moral questions aside, it seems like a crummy way to live, with guards and roadblocks and the threat of violence.

    • Yes and yes, depending on the settlement and its proximity to the center of Israel (Israel has long made it really cheap and easy to move to and stay in the settlements). The latter are more likely to be willing to be bought out than the former, but the former make up the bulk of the population (I say this without stats to hand, so you know: Grain of salt. If I find stats, I’ll bring them here!).

      They think they’re doing God’s will, and what is best for the Jewish people. Folks will take on a lot of hardship if they really believe those things. Sadly, they’re actually fucking us all over. (Well, the people. I think God’s probably doing fine, in spite of them).

  5. ignoblus

     /  March 22, 2012

    “I’m not at all sure what historical reasons these may be”

    I’m actually in favor of boycotting the settlements, but I have to ask: Really? Nothing comes to mind at all?

    • Not anything that’s actually applicable to Jews relating to other Jews, no.

      • ignoblus

         /  March 23, 2012

        But it’s not only about Jews relating to other Jews, is it? Or have all the gentiles stopped reading the Times?

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