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Jewish West Bank settlements a bad mistake

By Philip Mendes - posted Wednesday, 12 March 2008

For more than 25 years, I have supported two states as the only solution that would potentially meet both the minimum security needs of Israel and the minimum national aspirations of the Palestinians.

For me, this has always meant the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign Jewish state within roughly the pre-1967 Green Line borders, and equally the right of the Palestinians to an independent state within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This means no coerced Jewish settlements within Palestinian territory, and equally no coerced return of Palestinian refugees within Green Line Israel.

In recent years, since the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada, I have become more critical of Palestinian beliefs and actions. Palestinian violence and extremism, as reflected in constant attacks on Israeli civilians via Qassam rockets and suicide bombings, and the growing power of the religious fundamentalist group Hamas, stand as significant barriers to any conflict resolution.


Nevertheless, I have not changed my fundamental opposition to the Jewish settlements. In my opinion, they remain a significant obstacle to peace and reconciliation irrespective of anything the Palestinians say or do. This is not to deny that Israel has legitimate military and security concerns in the Territories unless or until a lasting peace settlement is negotiated.

Over the years, many simplistic arguments have been advanced in an attempt to justify the West Bank settlement project. These arguments were dominant when I first entered the public debate in the Australian Jewish community in the late 1980s, but are perhaps less so today.

Some of the more common arguments included: Israel has a right to expand its territory due to having fought the 1967 Six Day War in self-defence; Jews have a religious duty to establish colonies in the “liberated” biblical heartland; Jews have the same right as any other people to settle anywhere in the world; Jewish settlements do not dispossess Palestinians; Palestinians do not constitute a real nation; and dismantling settlements would only strengthen Palestinian hostility.

None of these arguments had any substance in the 1980s, and they have even less validity now. But unfortunately their influence both within Israel and the Jewish Diaspora served to obscure the dire consequences of the settlement project.

Why the settlements are wrong

There are overwhelming political, legal, moral, ethical, economic, demographic, military and public relations arguments against the settlements. They include the following:

Political: Many of the settlements were deliberately established in or near densely populated Palestinian areas in order to foreclose the very possibility of creating a viable Palestinian State, and hence the prospect of a peaceful two-state solution. Their presence has provoked constant conflict and violence between Palestinians and the Israeli army, and caused much unnecessary loss of life on both sides.


According to Shlomo Gazit, the former Israeli co-ordinator of activities in the Territories, the settlements were planned to “safeguard the Greater Israel vision. Therefore, as many settlements as possible had to be built. They had to be spread throughout the land, leaving no space or possibility of establishing autonomous Palestinian territorial units ... They became the main stumbling block on the way to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.”

The former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami labelled this practice “the most absurd march of folly that the State of Israel has ever embarked on”.

The American Jewish political theorist Michael Walzer controversially argues that the settlers are the “functional equivalent” of the Palestinian terrorist groups. He acknowledges that “they are not the moral equivalent. The settlers are not murderers, even if there are a small number of terrorists among them.

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First published in Eureka Street on March 10, 2008.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

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