[Updated] On the 11th of March, much of the international community expressed outrage after learning about an assault that left five Israeli family members dead in Itamar, an Israeli settlement 5 kilometers southeast of Nablus. Just days after, the international community experienced another shock when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized another round of settlement expansions in the West Bank.
The murders in Itamar have since become a main line of argument against settlement growth. There can no justification for the attacks that left five unarmed individuals dead, but the way in which Itamar is used to frame the settlement problem evades both justice for the immediate victims and justice for the region’s inhabitants as a whole. This strategy ignores the root of the conflict and instead perpetuates the intolerance and hatred existing within the region’s racial and religious divides. Logic, in its most objective form, is the only remedy.
‘Do we need another Itamar?’
Conversation with a pro-Israel critic of Netanyahu’s settlement fetish normally begins with any variation of the following sentences: ‘The government just approved 700 new settlement units. Can’t Netanyahu see that more Jewish lives will be lost? Do we need another Itamar?’
It is this ideological thought process that harms any future of peace and further instigates the oppression of Palestinians — albeit in a subtle manner. Not only does the critic refuse to recognize the role of settlements within the context of international law but he or she also chooses to ignore Palestinians’ right to safety and security. The only concern, it seems, is for the safety of the settlers — just the settlers. This transcends semantics and petty discourse; it’s a representation of the racism inherent within Israel’s sociopolitíc.
It is important to remind the critic that settlements are outlawed by international law onto which Israel is signed. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention directly addresses the illegality of Israel’s settlements by declaring that an “Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”. There can be no dispute over whether or not Israel is an occupying power, so to deny the illegal nature of the settlements is to deny the authority of law and the accountability of international justice systems.
If the settlements violate international law, their residents do too. This does not justify Itamar-like assaults but the settlers must accept responsibility for their criminal actions as well. No matter how much the government uses the promise of special benefits and added privileges to encourage Israelis to move into outposts dotting the occupied West Bank, the ultimate decision lies in the settler’s own hands. It is an unnecessary risk that not only puts Jews in danger but also violates international law as well as the rights and livelihoods of Palestinians evicted from their property to make room for growing settlement projects.
The logic is therefore quite simple: Settlements are illegal; they shouldn’t exist in the first place. Itamar-like transgressions can be avoided if the Israeli government complied with the Fourth Geneva Convention’s requirements. By moving to illegal outposts built atop the rubble of Palestinian homes, settlers willingly accept any potential consequences. The risks, however, are forcefully imposed upon Palestinians. As long as the settlement problem remains, the Israeli government, its pro-settlement backers, and the settlers themselves are just as guilty as those involved in the Itamar assault.
State-sponsored rejection of law and peace
Palestinians face Itamar-like attacks on a regular basis. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem is among one of the many organizations documenting settler violence against the resident Palestinian population and citing, for example, the frequent beatings and various hate crimes perpetrated against Arabs and their families. Farms are set ablaze, property is vandalized, children hit by cars, their grandfathers hit by small metal bullets. The most logical question to ask is: Who really pays the price of these settlements, oftentimes with their own lives? This is not to discount the fact that violence exists on both sides of the spectrum, yet it is no secret that the violence directed toward Palestinians goes largely underreported and unnoticed.
Nevertheless, those that oppose settlement building should oppose it in its entirety and for the right reasons. Criticizing the settlement project because it puts Jewish lives at risk implies that if the settlers managed to find guaranteed protection, there would be no reason to maintain opposition against settlement building. In other words, eliminating the “Palestinian threat” would render the settlements safe and, thus, favorable and legitimate.
The real threat of settlement growth is the endangerment of Palestinian basic human rights brought on through Netanyahu’s total rejection of the authority of international law. This will, and already has, set many precedents regarding Israel’s obligations under humanitarian treatises, but until the international community recognizes the problematic nature of illegal settlement expansionism, there will be no change in the way Israel violates global humanitarian ethic.
The next time a settlement-critic uses Itamar to oppose settlement growth, remind him or her that settlements aren’t illegal simply because they harm Jews. They’re illegal because they also violate the rights of a people under occupation. They’re illegal because they represent Israel’s violation of humanitarian, legal, and moral contracts to which it must abide. Settlement building is state-sponsored oppression and every illegal settlement should be dismantled not to protect Israeli settlers who willingly put themselves in harms way but to protect justice and any potential for a resolute peace that actually considers the rights of the Palestinian people.
Again, there can be no justification for the assault on a family in Itamar. But instead of simply dumping the blame on Palestinians and reinforcing the stigma that exists towards Arabs, consider the Israeli government’s defiance of international law and its standards.
Update: Moments ago, the Huffington Post published an interesting supplement regarding the United States’ role in allowing the continuation of illegal settlement expansion. Author Stephen Zunes writes, “[W]hen it comes to the settlements, there is no question that the Palestinian position is consistent with international law and the broad international consensus of what is necessary for a just and lasting peace, and the Israeli position is not.” I highly recommend this article, which can be found here.