New Book Contends Well With Old Accusation Against Israel (Without Taking Sides)
Is Israel stealing land from Palestinian Arabs? Martin Blecher, author of the soon-to-be published book, Israeli Settlements: Land Politics beyond the Geneva Convention, suggests that what one asks about an issue is key to understanding it and that this seemingly simple question is actually made up of a number of questions.
Whether or not Israel is stealing land from Palestinian Arabs is not just (or even mainly) a question of whether or not Israel is an occupying power building settlements seemingly wherever settlers want to lay down stakes (or rather, place converted containers). Also, it must be noted that the question has no relevance to contemporary Gaza since Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza and makes no claims on any land behind the Israel-Gaza fence in spite of the fact that it is the site of ancient Israelite communities. Therefore, the book pertains to the situation in Judea & Samaria (aka the West Bank).
Blecher’s purpose in writing this book was to fill in a gap he discerned in the Middle East literature. In his introduction, he writes:
I want to show that the question of Israeli settlements has been politicized through one particular understanding of the Geneva Convention, while few observers recognize and thus fail to understand that the land laws in West Bank were based on legal principles established prior to the creation of the Geneva Convention.
… former research has been too narrow in its area of exploration; I am also quite surprised that the question of land policy and laws regarding ownership of waste land and state land appear to be alien to observers interested in the Middle East.
Let me add that, in order to understand issues currently causing a lot of domestic and international controversy, such as the suits brought to the Supreme Court challenging the legitimacy of many Israeli settlements, one should really know more about the relevant land laws. The Settlements Regulations Law (passed in 2017) seeks to resolve this issue. In a Jerusalem Post article, Harel Arnon, lawyer representing the government against NGOs opposing this law:
. . . argued that the law does not come to steal land and admitted that it is not a perfect solution. Instead, he said, it comes to resolve a complex situation that has been left a mess for years, and to prevent a massive number of settlers from being forced out of their homes in the future.
and Blecher devotes an entire chapter to discussing this law and its implications.
In writing this book, Blecher provides the public with a clear, easily understood yet sufficiently detailed, examination of the “complex situation that has been left a mess for years”. There is enough here to satisfy the needs of the pro-Israel advocate and the more academically inclined reader will have a useful starting point inspiring further research.
What Do We Need To Consider Regarding Land & Settlements?
Regarding the well-worn settlements-are-illegal accusation (and the Israel-stole-Palestinian-land argument) leveled against Israel, let me begin by asking YOU a few questions:
- Are you aware of the fact that the Palestinian Authority (PA) recognizes that Jews lived and owned private property in Judea & Samaria (J&S) before 1948 and that they recognize the right of those Jews or their descendants to reclaim their property or get compensation for it? (see Appendix to this article)
- Do you know which land laws are those currently pertaining to the land in J&S: Ottoman, British Mandate, Jordanian, or new laws written up by Israel? Or perhaps some combination of these?
- Do you know the criteria used by the land laws extant in J&S today to differentiate private land from state land in the absence of deeds?
- Do you know what, aside from their ideology, lies behind the arguments B’tselem, Yesh Din, ACRI and Peace Now put forth in their condemnation of Israeli settlements as land-stealing?
- Are you aware of the Blue Lines and their impact on settlements in J&S?
- Have you read the Hague Regulations and the Fourth Geneva Convention and are you aware of their approaches to laws and land use and ownership in occupied territories (setting aside for the question whether or not Israel is occupying J&S). Do you know what parts of these international agreements Israel abides by and those that she does not?
- Do you know that the Supreme Court has determined that settlements are legitimate for security purposes and why?
If you know the answers to all these questions, then you are cognizant of the nuance that Blecher seeks to illuminate in order to allow us to discuss the subject intelligently. If you do not — and I did not — then this book is well worth the read. The longest chapter presents the historical background to land-related decisions taken by Israel, including describing the Ottoman categorization of legal status of different tracts of land that is fundamental to this issue.
Thoughts I Had While Reading the Book
I cannot say what Blecher’s attitude is toward the Jewish communities in J&S and that is to his credit. I suspect it is found in the last sentence in the following quote from the Introduction:
From late 1960s world leaders have argued that Israeli settlements violate international law. while at the same time refused to apply the similar arguments in reference to other territorial conflicts which areas are under dispute. Yet, while one may debate the wisdom of Israeli settlements, the idea that they are imprudent is quite different from branding them as illegal.
That is a legitimate debate — whether or not resettlement of J&S by Jews is imprudent. If you have read enough of my writings, then I am sure you know what I think. It was a relief that Blecher did not get bogged down in that issue in this book and remained loyal to his goal of exploring the issues of land laws and land ownership, past and present, with implications for the future.
In the chapter on the Historical background to the land laws, he cited an interesting paper by Orit Arfa:
Arfa speculates whether “one reason why Israel does not transfer or sell public land to individuals is to ensure the collective Jewish claim to the land (which it could easily rescind). Jews the world over could feel they have a stake in the land, without purchasing or cultivating it.”
This situation has a kind of ideological appeal to it. However, Arfa is opposed to the situation in which neither Jews nor Arabs privately own land they may have purchased. This is because the Israel Land Authority (ILA) leases property to Israelis for 49 or 98 years rather than selling it outright, and, theoretically, renewal could be rejected after the lease period; and, private land is not really privately owned in an authoritarian entity such as the Palestinian Authority (PA). There is very little land truly owned privately in Israel (meaning very little land that was not originally classified as state land). Arfa suggests that were both Jews and Arabs allowed to privately own land in both Israel and J&S, it would reduce the tendency to talk about Jewish land versus Arab land and increase the chances for peaceful resolution of the conflict. However, it may have allowed for the presence of a number of privately owned estates along the lines of that owned by the Arik Sharon family, a phenomenon that may not have been a positive one in such a small country.
Blecher concurs with Arfa, suggesting that with privately owned land, land disputes would be handled at a personal rather than national level, thereby taking the complaints to a lower court rather than the supreme court, both of which operate differently. Justice Minister Shaked has already passed legislation taking land cases to the lower court without changing ILA land holdings, and it remains to be seen how this will play out.
Blecher devoted one chapter to describing the attitudes of American presidents — from Johnson to Trump — to the J&S Jewish communities. Here he related an interesting story of an exchange between Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin that reminded me of how much I miss Begin. Perhaps he could have also outlined European leadership attitudes over the decades. I think this chapter could have been at the beginning of the book, setting the scene, perhaps, for how these leaders may have understood the settlement issues had they had a more nuanced understanding of the land laws.
An interesting chapter that was not really woven well into the rest of the book related the life-stories of two prominent settlers: Rabbi Menachem Froman and Shabtai Bendet. Froman was a secular Israeli who became religious and helped establish Gush Emunim, a movement promoting settlement of J&S. He was a “hard-core settler” who formed close relations with religious Arab spiritual leaders, believing that the conflict could be solved by them and not by the politicians. Bendet grew up religious and became even more religious after the army. He was instrumental in the founding of the first illegal outpost in J&S. However, his continual search for truth eventually brought him to adopt secularism and to join the Peace Now movement.
I knew Froman’s story before reading this book and was glad to have been introduced to Bendet, but I still do not understand what these particular individuals bring to a discussion of land laws that merits a whole chapter devoted to them. I would have liked some more commentary from Blecher on this point. I do understand why Blecher would write a chapter like this, however. In an email to me, he described his first book (only available in Swedish) as “an anthology of Hebrew, Palestinian, American writers/professors that give their opinion/insight” regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, it is clear that he likes to take a step back from the eye of a disagreement and view it from all sides from this more neutral perspective. In his own words:
I don´t like dogmatic thinking. In fact, I am quite allergic to it. The whole concept of a Two State Solution is filled with dogmatism. This was the thinking behind my first book. I wanted a collection of the more famous and unknown advocates behind the thinking of a Two State Solutions and alternatives to such. And I wanted it in Swedish out of the particular reasoning that the Two State Solution is as sacred a concept as the UN is to the ordinary Swede.
I am glad he wrote his second book in English.
Who Is Martin Blecher?
When I review books or critique articles from academia, I try to discover all I can about the person who wrote the piece I am discussing. Blecher does not have much online presence in English that would let me know his background but luckily he has a Facebook account. He responded to my query about reviewing his book and, with his email address thus provided, I proceeded to ask him personal and professional questions. He gave me permission to quote his email correspondence, and so I am copying here one story I found particularly enchanting:
In 2008 I was an intern with Jimmy Carter. This was a valuable experience for me which gave me some insight into Human Rights organizations and how some (not all) of them work. Second, President Carter had just released Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and it was quite controversial at the time. I am quite comfortable in different environments and when I deem something is not right I have no problem of speaking up. I remember coming there as a fresh graduate (just finished my Bachelor Degree and taking a break from studies), having read Peace Not Apartheid before beginning my internship. We had a Q & A, and it is customary that everybody in the audience is thankful, grateful for the opportunity they have been given: First they have been selected as interns from a worthy selection of applicants and then they get to meet the President himself.And I am there, as a 23-year-old Swede not with English as my mother tongue, and all I can think about is how many flaws and errors his book contains! I believe the audience got to ask four questions of Carter and luckily I am selected as one of those four.And I stand up, nervous and shaky. And I ask him straight out: Your book addresses a lot of issues and accusations. But it doesn´t contain any foot notes. You are giving this briefing on the Camp David talks that took place in the year 2000 but you weren´t there. And I also addressed the fact that the Carter administration misled the Begin administration in 1980 in the United Security Council by giving a pass on resolution 465 which mentioned Jerusalem as Arab territory. Obviously I was called in to my supervisor who was not happy at all; he asked if my intention was to ruin the experience for the others.President Carter actually wrote back to me, in a personal letter, later addressing my question about Jerusalem.
Martin Blecher is a young man of 33, with a BA and MA in Political Science from Stockholm University, I anticipate that he has additional writings that will yet emerge from his keyboard.
I thought you might be interested in the source cited by Blecher for this statement: The Palestine Papers.