photo: A view of construction works in Ramot, a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem on 4 October 2018 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]
Earlier this month, the High Planning Committee (HPC) of the Israeli Civil Administration authorised the construction of 2,304 new settlement units, just days after the approval of another 6,000 units in the occupied West Bank. These alarming developments are nothing if not predictable to those following recent events in the region, and the sordid course of US President Donald Trumpâs âDeal of the Centuryâ. With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledging during Israelâs April General Election campaign toÂ annex settlements; US Ambassador to IsraelÂ David FriedmanÂ giving an approving nod to such a move; the USÂ defunding of UNRWAÂ and unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israelâs capital; and with Senior US Advisor Jared KushnerÂ declining to speakÂ of a âtwo state solutionâ, the stage is almost set for the worst-case scenario. The inexorable march towards annexation is winding down to its last few strides.
In principle, liberals and centrists tend to oppose annexation, as it would sound the death knell for the two-state solution that theyâve always maintained optimistically is just around the corner. However, despite these developments, âmoderatesâ in the US Democratic Party (and even some âprogressivesâ) have instead rallied around aÂ bipartisan resolutionÂ decrying the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement as ââŠdestructive of prospects for progress towards peace.â BDS presumably hampers peace more than theÂ demolition of 70 Palestinian homesÂ that occurredÂ the day before the vote on that resolutionÂ in Washington. This latest assault on Palestinian solidarity is entirely consistent with the general âmoderateâ position: call for Palestinian rights, then obstruct anything that might achieve them.
How do moderates pull off the delicate balance between empathy and enmity to Palestinians? The go to move is to recruit ânuanceâ as a means of deflection. The blockade of Gaza and seasonal massacres have caused unthinkable suffering to 2 million Palestinians,Â but what about Hamas rockets? The matrix of control in the West Bank has brought daily human rights violations, crippled the Palestinian economy and denied Palestinians the right to self-determination for decades,Â but what about the stabbings and terror attacks? After all, Israel-Palestine is âcomplexâ, and moderates protest loudest when an attempt is made to extract something substantive from that complexity. The obvious asymmetry in power and suffering holds no weight on any occasion that the moderate can point to grievances that Israelis might also have, even if those grievances spring directly from the brutalising effects of their countryâs apartheid. Hence, in each dimension of the conflict, moderates can conjure some justification (however tenuous) for imagining that the situation is not âblack and whiteâ and there is âwrong on both sidesâ. And if Israel is not responsible for 100 per cent of the injustice in the region, why should they be the sole target of boycotts? Nice, neat, simple.
But there is one dimension where moderates are at a loss: Israelâs illegal settlements. Unlike other Israeli violations of international law, settlements canât be explained away by vague âsecurity concernsâ. Even the most gullible centrist wonât buy the claim that transferring Israeli Jews into the heart of occupied Palestinian land somehow increases their level of security. Nor can moderates countenance Netanyahuâs use of settlements asÂ collective punishmentÂ for individual acts of Palestinian violence. Settlements are patently illegal, give rise to the overtly racist âJew-onlyâ roads, and structure the labyrinth of military checkpoints and roadblocks that Palestinians must navigate daily. The presence of 132 settlements, 113 outposts and 622,000 settlers has made those still speaking of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state, look increasingly out of touch.
There is no semi-plausible ânuanceâ to find with settlements and so moderates will happily condemn them with no ifs and buts. What theyÂ wonât doÂ (or wonât do convincingly), though, is questionÂ whyÂ theyâre being built in the first place and whether it has anything to do with Zionism.
Zionism, like many ideologies, is a disputed term. Zionists will often claim the term simply represents the belief that Jews have the right to self-determination in their historic homeland. Moderates are mostly content to accept this at face value and wonât probe much further. Anti-Zionists andÂ BDSÂ supporters typically identify Zionism with settler-colonialism, an ideology seeking to capture âas much of Palestine, with as few Palestinians there as possibleâ. Weâre at an impasse then. Whether we believe Zionism is a benign nationalism or a dispossessing colonialism should depend on which definition more lucidly brings out the features of Israeli policy and political culture. The settler-colonialism framework accounts for the violent subjugation of indigenous resistance; the second-class citizen status of Palestinians in Israel; the stubborn persistence of the occupation; the historic and ongoing displacement of Palestinians; the aggression towards neighbouring states; and, crucially, the settlement project. By diminishing or distorting them, the âbenign nationalismâ view can give alternative accounts for most of these aspects of Israeli policy, and the remaining unsavoury elements can be attributed lazily to a right-wing, militaristic government.
However, âbenign nationalismâ has nothing to say about settlements. It canât explain why the settlement project began under a Labour government and has continued ever since, regardless of which party or coalition has been in power. It canât explain why Israel is willing to risk the consternation of the international community and its closest allies to keep subsidising aÂ war crime. It canât explain why the building of Jew-only settlements was enshrined as a national value in theÂ Nation-State Law. It canât explain why the homes of Palestinians inÂ Wadi HummusÂ have been demolished, despite having legitimate building permits issued by the Palestinian Authority, and in breach of previous agreements. It canât explain why illegally built settlement homes (even by Israelâs dismal standards) are ignored andÂ legalised retroactively, or why Israel nowÂ refuses to freeze settlement-buildingÂ as part of the âpeace processâ. This unwavering commitment to settlement building coheres perfectly with the settler-colonialism understanding of Zionism, and it has no place whatsoever in the benign nationalism view. Even if moderates insist on an ahistorical analysis of Israel-Palestine, forgetting the Nakba and the clear colonial context in which Zionism emerged, the pieces are all there to put together.
BDS supporters do not want moderates to condemn settlements, they want them to contextualise them. If the settler-colonialism view provides a fuller analysis of the settlements, then it will also prove to be better in understanding all the other dimensions of the conflict. The shameless essentialising and false equivalences that obscure the true nature of the conflict will quickly ring hollow, and observers can understand why the worldâs longest ongoing occupationÂ isÂ the worldâs longest ongoing occupation. They can understand that every peace initiative till now has stalled, not due to Palestinian intransigence â as if occupied peoples have any interest in forever deferring their liberation â but so the process of creeping annexation can continue. And in this view, we can say that the party that holds all of the cards and bears almost none of the costs, is the legitimate target for boycott. When moderates stop admiring their own talents for finding nuance and look more seriously at the issues, a path towards justice reveals itself.
~ Ahmed El Kady, Days of Palestine
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