Whenever the Middle East peace process is a topic in the news or in discussions, its factual stagnation is almost automatically blamed on the Israeli settlement development. It is one of the most controversial issues in the Middle East conflict. Even friends of Israel dissociate themselves when it comes to questions of the settlement policies. Without any intention to define in any form what steps should be undertaken in this regard, it is extremely important that some central points concerning the settlements question are explained factually:
1. “The West Bank is illegally occupied territory, and all Israeli settlements there are unlawful.”
The reasoning that the settlements in Judea and Samaria are illegal is based on the 49th Article of the Geneva Convention IV, implemented after World War II and the Nazi occupation of European states. Accordingly, the oppressive relocation of a civil population to other states is prohibited. Such a kind of relocation, however, never took place in the West Bank.
Moreover, Israel did not — and this must be specifically stressed — occupy any territories of a recognized, sovereign state. Jordan, from which Israel took over these areas in the Six-Day War (that was provoked by the Arab states), never had been able to enforce there its sovereignty because its occupation of the territories had been illegal and not been recognized by any state except by England and Pakistan.
But most of all we must in all explicitness be reminded that the League of Nations — the decisions of which were taken over by the United Nations (Article 80 of the U.N. Charter) — at the time had clearly determined in San Remo that Jews are allowed settle down in all areas of Palestine.
These areas thus are not a matter of “occupied territories,” and the construction of settlements there does not contradict international right. The term “occupation” is linked to many dismal associations, according to which the West Bank is “stolen” territory, and consequently has to be eliminated in political discussions.
This of course does not mean that under a peace agreement this land should not be redivided — but the moral and legal grounds for the peace negotiations have to be clearly defined: It certainly is not about illegally occupied, but about disputed territories to which people make a claim and the future of which must be determined in the context of a peace treaty.
2. “Jerusalem is an Arab town, and Jews cannot legitimately build there.”
This is a totally untenable assertion. For thousands of years (see 1. Book of Kings, 8,48), Jews all over the world have prayed toward Jerusalem — not least for the good of their Holy City, and in the hope of soon being able to return in this “City of Peace” (uru-salem).
In the 2,000 years since the Roman rule, Jews practically uninterruptedly have lived in the Holy City, and for 150 years they again have represented the majority in Jerusalem.
Until 1967, Jews were absolutely prohibited to access the Western Wall. In total contrast, the State of Israel thereafter left the administration of the Temple Mount and its mosques to the Arab side, in order to create the grounds for a peaceful atmosphere in Jerusalem. This tolerance-minded act however has been badly rewarded: Until today, it has been strictly forbidden to Jews to pray on the Temple Mount.
And now, in defiance of all these facts, it should be forbidden that Jews build up their homes in large parts of Jerusalem — what an irony! As the Arabs expelled the Jews by force from Jerusalem in 1948, and now, as a “result” of this illegal attack, a return to the city of their dreams should be prohibited to them? What a peculiar idea.
3. “The settlement construction inhibits the continuation of the peace talks.”
This is a strange statement. The absolute hostility toward Israel’s existence has accompanied the Jewish state ever since its founding in 1948. The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), the forerunner of the Palestinian Authority, was founded in 1964, i.e. at a time when there were no “occupied” territories yet — unless one considers the whole of Israel (also Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beer Sheva) as illegally occupied areas. But most important is that in the Oslo Accords, on which the Palestinian-Israeli efforts for peace are based, there is no talk of a settlement stop as a precondition for peace negotiations. The Accords explicitly state that the settlements in question shall be discussed only in the last phase of the peace negotiations.
4. How did the expansion of the settlements come about?
Right after the Six-Day War (1967), in which Israel was able to successfully ward off the Arab states’ attack, the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank were liberated from Jordan’s illegal occupation, and Israel was hoping for peace negotiations. But eight Arab states unanimously decided on a triple “no” in Khartoum: no peace negotiations, no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel. At that time, the Israelis started, for historical and security-related reasons, to populate primarily those territories that have been a direct part of the Jewish history, such as the regions around Jerusalem and Hebron. Because of the Arabs’ rejection to negotiate with Israel, these construction activities then broadened, but it has always been clearly determined that no privately owned land may be used for settling, and to this date, Israeli courts give assistance to Arabs who can evidence their rights to private property.
At the same time, it has always been obvious that in the course of true peace negotiations certain settlements would be evacuated. So it happened for the peace agreement with Egypt (Sinai settlements). And later, Israel retreated from the 25 (!) prosperous settlements in the Gaza Strip (thus causing 10,000 people to lose their homes), in order to promote a peace process. This, however, was badly rewarded: Instead of settling Palestinian refugees in this area, these settlements were turned into bases of terror from which towns in southern Israel and their civil populations are permanently shelled. This is no confidence-inspiring development in view of future negotiations regarding the settlements!
Three years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decreed a 10-month settlement stop in order to facilitate the peace negotiations — this, too, without any success.
5. How can the question of settlements be resolved within the scope of a peace treaty?
By means of a true will from all sides concerned to peacefully coexist in the Middle East. To achieve this, it is indispensable to accept each other, to recognize the other’s rights and to believe in an acceptable modus vivendi.
Israel has done much already in this regard. It recognizes the rights of the Palestinian Arabs and their cause to have their own state, and it prohibits (also by its courts) any attacks against the latter’s population. Also, Israel has proved that within the Jewish state, a large Arab minority (far more than 1 million people) can live freely and with full civil rights.
The Palestinian Arabs, however, still have to undertake a lot in this regard. For the time being, they deny, also in official documents, any rights of the Jews to Israel and the Holy Land (“no rights, even in Jerusalem”); they reject the formula “two states for two people” and are not willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; they use their official media against Israel and Judaism and to highly praise the worst of terrorists. And as far as the settlements: They time and again declare that the West Bank must become totally “judenrein” (free of Jews)!
In spite of all the internal difficulties, the Palestinian Arabs now have to change their basic attitude toward Israel and the Jews — then the question of settlements certainly can be resolved, be it by the elimination of settlements in areas densely populated by Palestinian Arabs, be it by the exchange of territories or be it by the peaceful coexistence also in a Palestinian state, as it has been the case within Israel since 65 years. Moreover, it would probably also be a natural solution to link the West Bank with Jordan. Jordan rules over more than 77 percent of the classical Palestine Mandate, and the majority of its citizens are Palestinian Arabs.
With a candid will of all sides, it will certainly be possible to find ways to a true peaceful coexistence in the Holy Land.
Arthur Cohn is an international film producer whose films include “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” “Central Station” and “One Day in September.”