Choosing the narrative
Recently, a Facebook friend of mine, well aware that I spent most of my time advocating for Israel, asked me the following question. Why does Israel build settler homes in Palestinian territory? I begged off giving a one sentence reply to an involved question and began to draft a reply that grew and grew and grew to what is effectively an essay. I don’t believe he would object to me making it public here.
The short answer is Netanyahu ended a temporary freeze on building on property Israel sees as its own.
The shortish answer to your question is that, for nine months, Netanyahu against the desires of most of his own political party and most of his coalition bowed to American pressure and forbade all new construction, including within areas with 100% Jewish population, to allow for natural growth (kids grow up); cities and towns that no one expects Israel to abandon even if this means compensating land grants to the eventual Palestinian State, and parts of Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem that are Israeli by Israeli law and have been for forty years. In return for doing this for nine months they received exactly nothing while Abbas is rewarded both in material terms of financial grants and in the propaganda of Obama publicly criticizing Israel while in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country and Clinton criticizing Israel in the same speech as awarding the Palestinians money for doing nothing.
The real question is why shouldn’t Israel build? But you didn’t ask it and I’m not enough of a politician to answer the question I want asked rather than the one actually asked. Another time, perhaps‡.
I’ve been trying to think how to explain the long answer in a very complicated situation. I dispute that Israel is building, that the homes are settler homes and that there is such a thing as Palestinian territory. You have asked something sometimes called a When did you last beat your wife question. The choice of words prejudges the answer. I challenge your choice of words. Also forgive me if I assume you know no history of government and ownership in the region. Only by ignoring the modern history of this region could you ask the question.
Stay with me. It will all become if not clear at least more understandable. Here is the long answer.
Settlement as a Palestinian excuse
Abbas does not want to negotiate with Israel but can’t openly say so for fear of offending the Americans and losing both his cash flow and protection from Hamas. Obama, whether through naivety or ignorance, played right into Abbas’s hand by demanding a settlement freeze, something that has never stopped talking, before. If the POTUS insisted on it, how could the Palestinian Authority ask for less?
BTW without even entering negotiations the Palestinians have imposed more ‘minimum’ conditions that they know in advance Israel cannot and will not agree to. So freezing development in order to bribe the Palestinians to the table is rather pointless.
Settlement and settlers: loaded language
Firstly what are settlements and settlers? From a Palestinian POV there are two variations of the settlement ‘demand’.
One is to declare all Israel is occupied territories to be conquered when the time is right. Remember the Palestine Liberation Organisation was formed in 1964, three years before Israel captured the ‘territories’. Conceptually all of Israel is settlements on Palestinian territory and on occasion that is exactly as it is described.
The other is the standard Islamic position that any area that was once under Sharia law i.e. was once captured remains Muslim, forever. If you think that only means Israel think Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Malta, etc. It’s not always politic to say so but from that perspective building in Madrid is illegal settler activity.
Palestinian territory? A potted history
Let’s start with some historical basics. There is not now and has never been an formal entity called Palestine, hence no Palestinian territory. There’s no need to go back to around 700AD when the Caliph Uthman† conquered and occupied this part of the Eastern Roman, whose native populations were Christians and Jews, citizens of the Eastern Roman Empire and not Arabs but it is necessary to go back to the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire from the 1516 to 1918.
Under the Ottomans there was no legal entity called Palestine, the vague geographical area we know as Palestine was part of three separate regions, under administration from Beirut, Damascus and Cairo. There was, however, an organized system of land ownership and registration which will become important later. Two additional factors need to be taken under consideration. Most of the land was not owned by individuals but by the Sultan, what we would call today State Land and outside the cities a feudal system was in place. The village headman, something like the lord of the manor in medieval times held land title and could and did sell off parts when it suited. Often they didn’t even live in the area but were absentees in the more cosmopolitan Beirut or Damascus. The peasants like serfs had the privilege of habitation and agriculture but not ownership. If anyone had spoke about Palestinian territory the Turks would have laughed … and then cut off their heads.
An important side note here. The late 19th century saw an influx of people into this area. Some were the Jews and some were Arabs from other parts of the Ottoman Empire, chiefly Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Some of the Arabs came for the job opportunities that the Jews brought. Some came because they were encouraged by the Turks to repopulate a depressed, depopulated backwater of the empire. All the Arabs became Palestinians under the UNWRA definition, Palestine refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. Nothing ethnic – only residence during a certain time frame.
Another side note here. Jews came under the definition until 1952 when the Israeli government asked for them to be removed. At least in theory the United Nations would have been responsible for rebuilding Hebron, Gush Etzion, etc. From which the Jews were expelled or fled to avoid massacre.
The British beat the Turks in WWI but they didn’t hold the land now known as the Palestinian Mandate because of conquest. The received the ‘mandate’ from the League of Nations (predecessor to the UN). For your interest this is the preamble:
Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
There is some dispute over whether Britain did this before or after it was granted the Mandate but it took the territory that was to become the Jewish State and gave about 2/3 of it to form the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, then known as Transjordan. This was a reward (Lawrence of Arabia was heavily involved) for Faisal’s support during World War I. The Hashemite family were Arab rulers from what is now Saudi Arabia who were displaced by the Saud family. They will become more important later.
For now note that while Jordan was populated by people who formerly were Palestinians because they were part of the Mandate of Palestine and ethnically related to at least some who now call themselves Palestinians there was no notion of Palestinian territory or for that matter a separate Palestinian people, only local inhabitants. As late as 1936 local Arabs went as far as to give evidence before the Peel Commission that they were not Palestinians.
From 1918 to 1948 the British were in control and increasingly resented by everybody. The British accepted the Turkish real property rules including individual ownership and the concept of state land, now known as crown land. They succeeded in putting down Arab rebellions quite bloodily but the Jews were a much tougher nut to crack. So eventually they put the whole mess in the hands of the UN expecting quite confidently they would be called back to evacuate what would remain of the Jewish population from the genocide the Arabs were promising.
BTW The Vatican, the Italian, and the French governments continued to press their own legal claims to sovereignty of at least part of the Holy Land during this period.
The United Nations passed the 1947 Partition Plan which would have divided the Mandate (minus Transjordan) into a Jewish State and an Arab state. Once again, no mention of Palestinians or Palestinian territory. The Jews reluctantly accepted this solution but all Arab countries rejected it totally and five Arab states invaded.
Once again for your interest, no Arab state contemplated a Palestinian state or the idea of Palestinian territory. Egypt and Transjordan which captured land annexed it. Transjordan (‘over the Jordan’) simply declared the captured land to be part of the new state of Jordan. Jewish inhabitants were simply expelled. Only Britain, who supplied and officered the Jordanian Army recognised the annexation. Jordan, as legal government, at least in its own eyes, divided Jewish property among Jordanians, many of whom being Bedouin had no Palestinian connection, at all.
The area which may eventually form the Palestinian State consists of the parts of the former Mandate of Palestine captured by the Jordanians (West Bank) and the Egyptians (Gaza).
Who owns what?
This is where the preamble about land ownership comes in. The Palestinian Authority does not recognise the right of Israel as the legal successor to both the Ottoman and the British to use state land but declares an ethnic ownership that you by your question accept without question. It is a claim that has no historical validity. On occasion they claim individual Arab ownership on the basis of Ottoman or British documents when that fits but reject any individual Jewish prior title using the same documents.
Who builds what?
The Israeli government isn’t building. These are not government structures. Jews are building with permission of the Israeli government and/or the Jerusalem municipality. The distinction is important. It is the difference under the Geneva Conventions of importing a population into an area, by force, which by the way referred to the mass transfer and murder of populations and permitting someone to move into an area, if they want to.
What are they building?
You called them settler houses. Settler has become a term of abuse and as I mentioned before by Palestinian standards all Israel is an illegal settlement. A more accurate term would be apartment blocks in areas of Jerusalem that are already majority or even exclusively Jewish. Much of this was majority Jewish before 1948 and chance that Israel will relinquish is close to nil.
Incidentally, there is a frenzy of Palestinian building going on now, supported by Iranian money with the intention of establishing facts on the ground. Apparently much of the building is uninhabited as it’s purpose is not housing so much as establishing facts on the ground.
Something else that tends to be ignored. Jerusalem’s Arab population skyrocketed since Israel took over in 1967, taking advantage of the job opportunities, social services and general freedom on the Jewish side of the line No one calls for a freeze to that. Perhaps Israel should demand a stop to illegal Arab construction and immigration to Jewish territory before Netanyahu will come to negotiate?
Thanks for your patience for reading this far. If you are not confused enough, note I haven’t even begun on the domestic political pressures on Netanyahu to allow building.
† I’m not sure that Uthman would have recognised the term Arab, certainly not in the political sense as defined since the early 20th century but I am no expert on this. I expect he would have described himself firstly as a Muslim and secondly by his tribal allegiance.
‡ At time of writing I don’t know if the Israeli cabinet will accept Obama’s offer (AKA bribe) and extend the freeze.