With illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land, why has Israel not been held accountable? [Read part one here.]
After wars in 2008-09 and in 2012, Israel has once again bombarded Gaza in a land, sea and air military campaign. Thousands of rockets from Hamas and other Palestinian factions have been fired at Israel, the vast majority of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system.
The war remains on a knife edge as only fragile ceasefires have been enforced, while both parties shuttle back and forth to Cairo for talks. Over 2,070 Palestinians have been killed, mostly civilians, while Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians.
In this interview, Fair Observer’s Manuel Langendorf and Abul-Hasanat Siddique speak to Norman Finkelstein, a writer, scholar and activist on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finkelstein is the author of nine books, including Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land. In part two, they discuss Israeli settlements, the International Criminal Court and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Abul-Hasanat Siddique: Israeli settlements on occupied land are illegal under international law. For some Jewish settlers, they view migrating to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a biblical right. Does such an argument have any basis in a secular world?
Norman Finkelstein: First, the majority of Jewish settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories have not migrated there because of a biblical right. Yes, there is a core of crazies, but the majority of settlers have migrated because they were given incentives — there was a government project. This notion that they just carried it out on their own and went out in the wilderness is simply a myth.
One thing you can credit Israel with is the level of planning and bureaucracy. Israel is very modern and rational. There were certain areas of the West Bank it wanted to keep due to water resources and good land. Israel was very clear with what it wanted. The expression in the 1970s was it wanted everything but areas of dense Arab settlement. Israel wanted the land and resources, but not the people.
To take one classic example, a senior Israeli hydrologist was once asked: “Where are the settlements located? Why are some located at X place and not at Y place?” So he said: “Well, just look at what’s under the settlements. All the major settlement blocs are located right above the water aquifers.” That wasn’t an accident and that wasn’t because of messianic Jews who were inspired by the Bible. Israel laid the territorial grid for settlements based on where the resources were. So the hydrologist said: “You want to know where the settlements are? Look what’s underneath them — where water is.”
So this was a government-inspired plan. There was a tip of the spear — the messianic crazy Jews — but overall settlers were given housing and education subsidies. Therefore, it was more inviting to live in settlements than in Israel due to massive government subsidies.
Labor leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin always built more settlements than their Likud predecessors. This included Labor leader Ehud Barak when he replaced the first government of Binyamin Netanyahu. Now, the pattern has been broken somewhat because Netanyahu has been in power for so long. But the point being, settlements have been a national project of Israel and it has been a rational, bureaucratic process.
Manuel Langendorf: Many people point especially to the wider Jerusalem area where a lot of settlers live as well, in what some describe as “quality of life” settlers.
Finkelstein: Right after the 1967 war, an Iraqi representative at the UN General Assembly was a very smart when he said: “Of course Israel wants to annex East Jerusalem. Whoever controls East Jerusalem controls the West Bank.” East Jerusalem was the social, economic, political and cultural hub of the West Bank, and so controlling East Jerusalem meant controlling the West Bank.
To take one classic example, a senior Israeli hydrologist was once asked: “Where are the settlements located? Why are some located at X place and not at Y place?” So he said: “Well, just look at what’s under the settlements. All the major settlement blocs are located right above the water aquifers.” That wasn’t an accident and that wasn’t because of messianic Jews who were inspired by the Bible. Israel laid the territorial grid for settlements based on where the resources were.
Today, things have changed somewhat. In the past, metropolitan Jerusalem stretched from Ramallah in the north and Bethlehem in the south, and that triangle accounted for about 14% of the West Bank economy. Now it has changed significantly. An accomplishment or achievement of the Israeli occupation has been to significantly alter the political geography in the West Bank. Israel has managed to turn Ramallah into the hub of the West Bank, thereby paving the way for the annexation of Jerusalem. Of course, East Jerusalem contains the holy sites, but it is no longer the political, economic and cultural hub of the West Bank. One of the successes of the occupation is that Israel has managed to replace East Jerusalem with Ramallah as the main Palestinian city. Even Palestinians now think of Ramallah as their capital rather than East Jerusalem.
Langendorf: We talked about the illegality of settlements under international law. There was also the Goldstone Report, in which Israel was accused of war crimes. In response, Israel argued that it has a right to defend itself. At the international level, why do we see that Israel has not been held accountable by the international community?
Finkelstein: Global powers never get held accountable for war crimes. The International Criminal Court might as well be re-christened as the International Criminal Court of African leaders because, apart from a few Balkan politicians, it has only indicted Africans from a continent that has the least political leverage in the world.
Israel isn’t alone in escaping indictment. The US, Britain and France have not been indicted, even though France is responsible for significant war crimes in Africa. Russia obviously hasn’t been indicted, even though it deserves to be for what it did in Chechnya. But that is just the name of the game. The fact that Israel hasn’t been indicted is because the US has prevented it.
Langendorf: In the UN Security Council, for example?
Langendorf: We have seen protests in many European capitals, and even in the US, against what the Gaza conflict, with a non-violent struggle against the occupation. One component of that is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. What has the BDS movement achieved so far and what can it achieve?
Finkelstein: The BDS movement’s achievements have been quite significant. It is a very well organized, committed group of people, and it has managed to increase the salience on the political international stage of the Israel-Palestine conflict — there is no question about that. However, the problem with the BDS movement is two-fold.
The first is not so much a problem, but a reality. It is not possible for any external force to liberate the Palestinians. The Palestinians have to liberate themselves. I am an atheist but I strongly believe that God helps those who help themselves, and the Palestinians have to lead the struggle. The BDS movement has operated in a political vacuum for the past ten years. The Occupied Territories, in particular the West Bank, were successfully pacified by Israel, with the attitude among most Palestinians in the West Bank being “every man for himself.” In the absence of any political will in the Occupied Territories, the limits of a boycott movement are very severe.
If you attend, as I did recently, a demonstration in New York and you’re chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” that’s just not going to fly. It is possible that those people don’t know what the river and sea are. For those who know the river is the Jordan River, you’re saying that Israel is not part of the future.
If you look at the precursor of the BDS movement, it was the anti-apartheid sanctions campaign in South Africa. This campaign ebbed and flowed in rhythm with the internal struggle. The highlights of the anti-apartheid campaign came in 1960 with the Sharpeville massacre, in 1976 with the Soweto massacre, and in 1984 when the South African apartheid regime declared a state of emergency, after mass civil unrest by what was called the United Democratic Front.
The entire anti-apartheid sanctions campaign was a function of the internal struggle. The BDS movement’s expectations became slightly inflated when its leaders claimed, to quote them: “We have reached a South Africa moment.” You cannot reach a South Africa moment unless there is an internal struggle in Palestine, of which campaigns abroad are an effect. There is a very big difference between cause and effect. The anti-apartheid sanctions movement was an effect; the cause was the internal struggle. The BDS movement has erroneously reversed cause and effect and imagines that it can liberate Palestine.
The second limitation of BDS is the international consensus over how to resolve the conflict. This is two states on the basis of the pre-1967 borders and a just resolution of the Palestinian refugee question. BDS refuses to take a position on Israel. If you refuse to take a position on Israel, there will be severe limits. For example, if you attend, as I did recently, a demonstration in New York and you’re chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” that’s just not going to fly. It is possible that those people don’t know what the river and sea are. For those who know the river is the Jordan River, you’re saying that Israel is not part of the future. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — whatever you think about that yourself in terms of a goal or the morality of it, as a political matter, well, it’s dead on arrival and it’s not going anywhere.
Langendorf: There have been similar chants in London and there were big protests as well.
Finkelstein: In terms of public opinion, that is not going to go anywhere. You take people who have been good such as Gerald Kaufman. Is he going to accept that slogan? The answer is obviously no.
Siddique: Having heard you speak in London a few years ago, this is one question I wanted to ask but never got the chance to. Is a one-state or two-state solution the way forward and are you optimistic at all?
Finkelstein: As I said to you, anybody who claims to predict what will happen in ten years is either a charlatan or a fool. Could I have predicted what is happening now? I have to be honest, I was correct on many points, but I have also been incorrect on others. I would not have thought that Israel would be able to commit another massacre on the scale of 2008-09 in Gaza. Well, they have been able to. I didn’t think they would, but they have. Also, who would have predicted that the West Bank would wake up?
Now, it seems, I am not too optimistic about the West Bank because it is still too divided on the political level to get that organized force, but there has been an awakening. Is it the awakening as in the third intifada? I am not so optimistic, but there has been an awakening and that’s also a significant factor that could not have been predicted. I will not claim to be optimistic, but I will not claim to be pessimistic. I claim that I will do my best personally to increase the prospects for a positive outcome.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.