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?”