Israeli settlements and “ethnic cleansing”, Open Democracy, 26 August 2009

The argument that the dismantling of Israeli communities in the Palestinian West Bank would amount to “ethnic cleansing” is increasingly being heard. It deserves close examination of a kind its proponents may not welcome, says Martin Shaw.

An intense political engagement over the question of West Bank settlements is continuing between the Barack Obama administration in the United States and the government of Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel. A failure to resolve the issue would be fatal to any chances of real progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

A particular rhetorical weapon is being employed by self-proclaimed supporters of Israel in the United States in relation to the settlements: that any dismantling of these communities and removal of their inhabitants would amount to “ethnic cleansing”. The use of such a term makes an explicit association between any withdrawal of the settlers from the West Bank and (among many other cases) the systematic expulsions that took place during the wars of ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The argument is being made for immediate political purposes, as the pace of engagement in the new round of regional diplomacy quickens (see Alex Spillius, “Obama close to securing Middle East peace talks“, Daily Telegraph, 26 August 2009). But some of its rhetorical potency derives from the fact that it connects to historical experience and political reference-points in the region as well as beyond. The “ethnic cleansing” case thus deserves closer examination: but might it lead in directions that its proponents would not wish to go?

A subtle warning

A prominent Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, has circulated a report to sympathetic individuals and organisations on behalf of the Israeli Project (TIP). This outlines what it calls “the best settlement argument”: “The idea that anywhere that you have Palestinians there can’t be Jews, that some areas have to be Jew-free, is a racist idea. We don’t say that we have to cleanse out Arabs from Israel. They are citizens of Israel. They enjoy equal rights. We cannot see why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews” (see Gilad Halpern, “Pro-Israel group: Obama settlements policy backs ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Jews“, Ha’aretz, 23 August 2009).

The advice of the Israel Project – whose board of advisors includes twenty members of the US Congress, from both parties – represents an interesting variation in the response to perceived threats. Israeli politicians and their allies have long argued that Arab and Islamist opposition to Israel’s existence portends a new holocaust. The most prominent example is the reaction to the anti-Israel rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the holocaust-denying Iranian president, in 2005 (interpreted by no less than the International Association of Genocide Scholars as a “public expression of genocidal intent”). The Israel Project’s approach (albeit now somewhat qualified by its founder) represents a subtler and apparently more realistic warning of a new, inherently anti-Semitic, threat. The “ethnic cleansing” argument – given that this concept is so often used as a euphemism for genocide – keeps the genocide threat to the fore without conjuring the fear of a mass slaughter of Jews, which is obviously implausible in the context of any likely peace settlement.

The political context and motive of the “cleansing” argument may make it appear little more than a shallow propaganda move. Certainly the way the Israel Project presents it – denying any threat to “cleanse out Arabs from Israel” and asserting Israeli Arabs’ citizenship and “equal rights” – is doubly disingenuous. The desirability of “transferring” Israeli Arabs out of the state is a recurring theme on the not-so-far shores of Israeli politics, and on no serious assessment can Arabs be said to have equal rights in what is, after all, the “state of the Jewish nation”. The current proposals to demand that Arabs take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state only emphasise the deepening crisis of the Arab community’s position within Israel (see Laurence Louër, “Arabs in Israel: on the move“, 20 April 2007).

The historical code

But if the Israeli Project’s focus on “ethnic cleansing” hits a deeper nerve, this is precisely because of the way that all political issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict, including the settlements, are defined in terms of communal interests. Sixty years ago hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were expelled and terrorised into flight by the emergent Israeli state – a certain episode of “ethnic cleansing” and indeed of genocide (to the extent that there was a concerted policy to destroy a large part of Arab society). For the last forty years, Israel has used its occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem to continue the process of dispossessing Palestinian homes and land, in slow-motion and by means which are ostensibly legal in domestic law (if not in international law, since the occupation itself remains illegal).

In this light, is it not then plausible to consider the proposal to dismantle Israeli settlements a kind of “ethnic cleansing” in reverse? It is clear that there have been many such genocidal “cleansings” in history, including the wholesale “revenge” expulsions of Germans in the closing stages and aftermath of the second world war in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. True, there can be no suggestion that the mere “freeze” on new and extended settlements currently proposed by President Obama could fall into this category, since no one will be dispossessed or expelled from anywhere as a result (although a freeze may save a few Palestinians from this fate). But since any even half-reasonable peace settlement must hand over some Israeli settlements to Palestinian control (without this there is no possibility of a coherent and viable Palestinian state), the situation of the Jewish population in these settlements is a real, complex and potentially difficult issue.

It is clearly relevant that many settlers, as well as settlement leaders, have been in the vanguard of Israel’s illegal expansion in the occupied territories, and their parties are the most aggressively anti-Palestinian in the current Israeli political scene. No able-minded adult settlers can truly have been wholly ignorant of this context, and in this sense all can be regarded as complicit to some degree. However these facts cannot justify the compulsory removal of an entire population, including children and the mentally incapable – as well as those settlers whose motives have been primarily socio-economic rather than expansionist. Such an expulsion might indeed be considered, like the Israeli expulsions of Palestinians since 1948, “racial” in character (whatever the specific ideological motives). Even if neither Israel nor Jews have collective rights to occupied Palestinian lands, it can be argued that individuals and families may have acquired personal rights to stay in homes in which they have lived for years or even, in some cases, decades. The key to the question, then, is the reconciliation of these rights with justified Palestinian demands for political control over the occupied lands in which settlements have been built – and the rights of former Palestinian landowners to compensation.

The political twist

So if “peace” does not “require that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews”, three things would be necessary to achieve peace without “cleansing”.

First, Israeli advocates must stop talking euphemistically about a “Palestinian area”, and face up to the unanswerable case (in the absence of any realistic prospect of a single bi-communal state) for a viable Palestinian state. Second, Israel must acknowledge the terrible consequences of its own “ethnic cleansings” of Palestinians, starting with 1948 and including those that have taken place recently to allow the building of the settlements, and make proposals to address the continuing injustices arising from them. Third, Israel must address the poor and deteriorating situation of the Arab minority within its own borders, dropping all constitutional provisions which make Arabs second-class citizens and ensuring that “equal rights” become a reality.

For if the continued existence of a Jewish population in the settlements requires a Palestinian state in which minorities can be confident that their individual and communal interests will be respected, the latter needs to be matched by an Israeli state which demonstrates the same standards. A Palestinian state should not be a racially Arab state; but neither should the Israeli state be defined as the state of the Jewish people. Unless both states can be defined both by secular, non-racial constitutions and by clear, well-founded and widely-supported policies of minority inclusion, the prospects for Jewish residents in any settlements handed back to Palestine – and for Israeli Arabs – will continue to be poor.

The Israel Project offers nothing in this direction. It supports policies that would continue to confine Palestinians to Bantustan-style “areas”, deny the abuses they have suffered over sixty years and their unequal status within today’s Israel, and do everything to sustain the present illegal status of territory- and land-grabbing settlements.

The group’s advocacy touches on a real issue, but by seeking to block any serious compromise with legitimate Palestinian claims its campaign only makes more likely the kind of “cleansing” which it says it wants to avoid – and that when compromise comes, as it must, a number of Israeli settlers will be forcibly removed. Most probably this will be done, as in Gaza in August 2005, by the Israeli state itself.

This makes it ever more important now to distinguish between the rights of settler families and the ideological interests and purposes of the Israel Project and its allies. For in the context of the just and secure two-state agreement that Israelis and Palestinians alike desperately need, such ostensible support for Israel turns on closer inspection into its opposite.

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