“Among the different questions raised by the idea of the renaissance of our people on its own soil, there is one the importance of which outweighs all others: the question of our attitude towards the Arabs,” wrote Yitzchak Epstein, one of the few Zionist Jewish leaders native to Palestine, in 1907. The very existence of such a humane and moral attitude among Zionists is a powerful statement about the motivations of its proponents. But the fact that some Zionists thought this way, and that some still do, makes today’s reality in the West Bank saddening and disappointing.
Last week, Israelis and Palestinians and people who care for human dignity were sharply reminded of the reason for their disappointment. Edmund Levy and a few right-wing Israeli jurists found that Israel is not legally an occupying power—why this would lead Netanyahu to spit in the face of the international community and legalize settlements remains unclear to me—and in doing so reminded the world just how ugly the Middle East can be. The tragedy of this report, though, is not its findings. The tragedy is its unashamed attempt to prolong the conflict between two peoples asking only to live in peace and stability between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. It is an unequivocal step backward in a process that must go forward.
The Levy report recommended that Israel should legalize its settlements in the West Bank because this land is not legally occupied. The report’s reasoning is perverse and, frankly, laughable: the jurists note that an occupation by definition is a temporary occupation of territory during a conflict to be returned upon the conflict’s termination, and as Israel has occupied the West Bank for decades and there is no sign of a change in the status quo, the territories are not under occupation. Apparently wrong things can outlive their wrongness. Most reasonable people would beg to differ.
It’s embarrassing, though, that this was the best that these jurists could come up with. The concept of occupation in regards to these lands is actually more ambiguous than the international condemnations would have us believe. Until 1920, the West Bank was Ottoman land. At the San Remo conference, Britain was given authority over the land in the form of a mandate. Before UN Resolution 181 which planned to establish an Arab state in this territory could take effect, Transjordan captured the land in the 1948 war, and held onto it until Israel captured it in 1967.
There was much capturing, and little legal possessing. The Hague Conventions of 1907 specify that an occupied territory is one taken from the “authority of the legitimate power,” and one has to wonder if there ever has been legitimate authority over the West Bank in the modern era. But the international community has made such a debate taboo. This is unfortunate legally and politically. Israel may, in fact, not be an occupying power—and it is important that we call a duck a duck but not assume that everything that sounds like a duck is one.
There is also a second, greater mistake. This report seems to think—or wish—that legalizing the settlements makes them morally correct, too. But while land can be politicized and subjected to legal dispute, the Palestinian people should not be politicized and subjected to hardship because of legal minutia. And the hardships that Palestinians have to live through daily in the West Bank outweigh any legal conclusions. The law becomes less interesting when people are suffering.
Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is understandably messy because, fundamentally, they don’t fit into the Zionist narrative. The “people without a land” were shocked to learn in the early 20th century that they were not actually able to settle in a land without a people. As the Zionists came face to face with the native reality, though, many began to recognize that the Palestinian Arabs were not a people that would just disappear. Undoubtedly, the force and intensity of the Zionist settlement precluded some attempts for peaceful coexistence. So did the virulent but understandable Palestinian Arab reaction to the Zionist enterprise. Mistakes were made repeatedly on both sides.
The Levy report is the latest of such mistakes. As a Zionist, it pains me not only because my own people wrote it, but also because of how unaware it is of the always-fragile nature of Israeli-Palestinian relations. I know that the Palestinians have a profound right to live in security and stability in the land their fathers lived in for 1300 years. I know this and I do not want to be temped to forget it. I would hope every Palestinian, conversely but equally, recognizes that the return of the beleaguered Jewish people to their historic homeland is one of history’s grandest and rightest narratives. And they too should not be tempted to forget this.
Israel’s breaches of morality and Palestinians’ disregard for civilian life already tempt those on both sides to think parochially and defensively. But if both sides work to cease firing rockets of vengeance and inelasticity, the hour when both sides can cast away their rifles will no longer be endlessly delayed.