Are Israeli Settlements the Barrier to Peace?

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Jan 12, 2015

Is Israel's policy of building civilian communities in the West Bank the reason there's no peace agreement with the Palestinians? Or would there still be no peace even if Israel removed all of its settlements and evicted Israeli settlers, as it did in Gaza in 2005? Renowned Harvard professor and legal scholar Alan Dershowitz explains.

Arabs and Palestinians were trying to kill Jews long before the first Israeli settlement was built—and even before Israel was a nation.

  • Arabs attacked Jews in modern-day Israel before the establishment of Israel as a nation.View Source
  • Jordan, supported by the Palestinians, attacked Israel in 1967, despite Israel’s repeated efforts to keep Jordan out of the Six Day War. Jordan controlled the West Bank before this, and thus there were no Israeli settlements. In defending itself against Jordan, Israel captured the West Bank, where it has since built settlements.View Source
  • Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz argues that while the settlements may have contributed to the difficulty of making peace, they certainly are not the major barrier Israel’s enemies claim them to be.View Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved – Alan DershowitzView Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Israel – Alan DershowitzView Source

The Palestinians overwhelmingly want Israel destroyed whether or not there are settlements in the West Bank.

  • Arabs attacked Jews in modern-day Israel before the establishment of Israel as a nation.View Source
  • Jordan, supported by the Palestinians, attacked Israel in 1967, despite Israel’s repeated efforts to keep Jordan out of the Six Day War. Jordan controlled the West Bank before this, and thus there were no Israeli settlements. In defending itself against Jordan, Israel captured the West Bank, where it has since built settlements.View Source
  • Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz argues that while the settlements may have contributed to the difficulty of making peace, they certainly are not the major barrier Israel’s enemies claim them to be.View Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved – Alan DershowitzView Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Israel – Alan DershowitzView Source

When Israel withdrew from Gaza, it became a staging area for terror attacks. The same thing will happen if they pull out of the West Bank.

  • In 2005, Israel uprooted every settlement and every Israeli citizen from Gaza, handing the Palestinians complete control of the territory.View Source
  • Between 2005 and 2007, Palestinians used their new territory and freedom of movement to launch over 2,700 rockets into Israel, aimed at civilian centers.View Source
  • During the 50-day Gaza conflict in 2015, Palestinians fired over 4,700 rockets into Israel, an act characterized as a war crime by Amnesty International.View Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved – Alan DershowitzView Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Israel – Alan DershowitzView Source

In 2005, Israel handed the Gaza Strip over to the Palestinians—who then used the area to fire thousands of rockets into Israel. 

  • In 2005, Israel uprooted every settlement and every Israeli citizen from Gaza, handing the Palestinians complete control of the territory.View Source
  • Between 2005 and 2007, Palestinians used their new territory and freedom of movement to launch over 2,700 rockets into Israel, aimed at civilian centers.View Source
  • During the 50-day Gaza conflict in 2015, Palestinians fired over 4,700 rockets into Israel, an act characterized as a war crime by Amnesty International.View Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved – Alan DershowitzView Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Israel – Alan DershowitzView Source

Why shouldn’t Israel pull out of the West Bank? Because the Palestinians would likely use it to launch more attacks on Israelis. 

  • In 2005, Israel uprooted every settlement and every Israeli citizen from Gaza, handing the Palestinians complete control of the territory.View Source
  • Between 2005 and 2007, Palestinians used their new territory and freedom of movement to launch over 2,700 rockets into Israel, aimed at civilian centersView Source
  • During the 50-day Gaza conflict in 2015, Palestinians fired over 4,700 rockets into Israel, an act characterized as a war crime by Amnesty International.View Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved – Alan DershowitzView Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Israel – Alan DershowitzView Source

International law unequivocally says that Israel has the right to maintain military control of the West Bank. 

  • Jordan, Israel’s neighbor to the east, attacked Israel in 1967, despite Israel’s repeated efforts to keep Jordan at bay. In defending itself against Jordan, Israel captured the West Bank, where it has since built settlements.View Source
  • As Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz explains, military occupations are clearly permitted under international law following an aggressive attack by a neighboring state. Until a meaningful peace is achieved and all terrorism against the state ceases, Israel has every right to maintain military control over the West Bank. Giving up control of the area would also be irresponsible of Israel because of the strategic threat the area poses on major Israeli cities. Military occupation, however, is different than building long-term settlements, something Dershowitz argues should not be done in the West Bank, as it gives enemies of Israel an excuse to attack the legitimacy of the occupation in general.View Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved – Alan DershowitzView Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Israel – Alan DershowitzView Source

The West Bank cannot be “given back” to the Palestinians, as it was never their land. Jordan lost it in 1967 when it invaded Israel.

  • Jordan, Israel’s neighbor to the east, attacked Israel in 1967, despite Israel’s repeated efforts to keep Jordan at bay. In defending itself against Jordan, Israel captured the West Bank, where it has since built settlements.View Source
  • As Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz explains, military occupations are clearly permitted under international law following an aggressive attack by a neighboring state. Until a meaningful peace is achieved and all terrorism against the state ceases, Israel has every right to maintain military control over the West Bank. Giving up control of the area would also be irresponsible of Israel because of the strategic threat the area poses on major Israeli cities. Military occupation, however, is different than building long-term settlements, something Dershowitz argues should not be done in the West Bank, as it gives enemies of Israel an excuse to attack the legitimacy of the occupation in general.View Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved – Alan DershowitzView Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Israel – Alan DershowitzView Source

Palestinian leaders have rejected every Israeli offer of land-for-peace. 

  • Palestinian leaders have rejected offers of statehood contingent upon promises of peace in 1938, 1948, 1993, 2001, and 2007. Instead of embracing peace, they have repeatedly sanctioned and participated in terrorism and violence.View Source
  • In 1972, Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, ordered the capture and murder of Israeli Olympic athletes. In 1973, Arafat arranged for the capture and eventual torture of three American diplomats.View Source
  • After the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Peace Accords, the Palestinian Authority escalated terror attacks on Israelis, resulting in the murder of 1496 Israelis by Palestinian terrorists between 1993 and 2012—nearly three times the number of Israelis murdered by terrorists in the five decades prior.View Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved – Alan DershowitzView Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Israel – Alan DershowitzView Source

Israel has repeatedly made peace proposals to the Palestinians, who have repeatedly rejected those proposals and unleashed terror attacks.

  • Palestinian leaders have rejected offers of statehood contingent upon promises of peace in 1938, 1948, 1993, 2001, and 2007. Instead of embracing peace, they have repeatedly sanctioned and participated in terrorism and violence.View Source
  • In 1972, Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, ordered the capture and murder of Israeli Olympic athletes. In 1973, Arafat arranged for the capture and eventual torture of three American diplomats.View Source
  • After the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Peace Accords, the Palestinian Authority escalated terror attacks on Israelis, resulting in the murder of 1496 Israelis by Palestinian terrorists between 1993 and 2012—nearly three times the number of Israelis murdered by terrorists in the five decades prior.View Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved – Alan DershowitzView Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Israel – Alan DershowitzView Source

The major roadblock to peace is not the Israeli settlements—it’s the Palestinians.

  • Palestinian leaders have rejected offers of statehood contingent upon promises of peace in 1938, 1948, 1993, 2001, and 2007. Instead of embracing peace, they have repeatedly sanctioned and participated in terrorism and violence.View Source
  • In 1972, Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, ordered the capture and murder of Israeli Olympic athletes. In 1973, Arafat arranged for the capture and eventual torture of three American diplomats.View Source
  • After the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Peace Accords, the Palestinian Authority escalated terror attacks on Israelis, resulting in the murder of 1496 Israelis by Palestinian terrorists between 1993 and 2012—nearly three times the number of Israelis murdered by terrorists in the five decades prior.View Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved – Alan DershowitzView Source
  • Related reading: The Case for Israel – Alan DershowitzView Source

Is Israel's policy of building civilian communities in the area known as the West Bank the reason there is no permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians? 

The answer to that question, despite all the sound and fury regarding the so-called settlement issue, is no. 

The Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not the major barrier to a peace agreement. 

A little historical context will make this clear. 

For two decades before June of 1967, the West Bank, including much of Jerusalem, was controlled by Jordan.  During that time -- a time when Israel did not have a single settlement -- there were numerous Palestinian terror attacks against the nation state of the Jewish people.  In other words, Palestinians committed terror attacks against Israel when there were no settlements and they committed terror attacks against Israel when there were settlements.
 
If Israel were to pull out of every single settlement in the West Bank tomorrow, it's unlikely that anything much would change. In fact, if history is any indicator, Israel could be worse off.  

In 2005, Israel abandoned every single community, every house, every farm, every structure it had built in the Gaza Strip. How did the Palestinians of Gaza react? They launched thousands of rockets and numerous other terror attacks against the nation state of the Jewish people.  The attacks continue to this very day. And every year the range of these rockets get longer and their payloads more lethal. Only a very sophisticated Israeli anti-missile defense keeps the country secure. Can you blame Israel for not wanting to risk a two-front rocket war? 

But Israel has no right to be in the West Bank at all, many say. So, permit me, a law professor at Harvard, to say that on the basis of international law this position is incorrect. 

Military occupations are clearly permitted under international law following an aggressive attack by a neighboring state.  Jordan, Israel's neighbor to the East, attacked Israel in 1967, despite Israel's repeated efforts to keep Jordan out of the Six Day War.  

In defending itself against Jordan, Israel captured the West Bank and the eastern part of Jerusalem.  Under international law, until a meaningful peace is achieved and all terrorism against it ceases, Israel has every right to retain military control over this area. Since no peace treaty has been reached and the terrorism continues with new attacks threatened almost daily, Israel is under no legal obligation to leave. Given the danger that Israel would be putting itself in if it did leave the West Bank -- exposing its major cities and international airport to rocket attacks -- it would be irresponsible to do so, which is why Israel is still there.  
 
Nevertheless I fully acknowledge that a military occupation is significantly different, both as a matter of law and politics, from building civilian settlements even in a territory that is legitimately subject to a military occupation.  That's why I have long opposed the building of settlements in the West Bank. I believe it has caused resentment and has given enemies of Israel an excuse to attack the legitimacy of the occupation in general. 

It is also why I have always supported Israel's efforts to exchange land for peace as it has done on multiple occasions over the last few decades. So, while the settlements may have contributed to the difficulty of making peace, it has not been the major barrier that Israel's enemies claim it to be. It is not the reason there has been no peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
 
The reason has always been and remains the unwillingness of Palestinian leaders -- and, according to Palestinian polls, much of the Palestinian population -- to recognize Israel's right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people.  Until and unless the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people acknowledge that the State of Israel has the right to be free from military assault, from terrorism from rocket attacks, and from diplomatic warfare, there will be no resolution to the Middle East dispute.

If these conditions, which must be the basis of any two-state solution, meaning a nation State for the Jewish people and a Palestinian State, are met, the occupation will end, the settlement issue will be resolved, and the blessings of a mutual peace will finally be achieved. 

I'm Alan Dershowitz, Professor of Law at Harvard University for Prager University.

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