Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Anthony Lewis calls them "provocative". Robert Wright calls them "famously provocative". Thomas Friedman referred to them as "a cancer". Eric Alterman identifies them as "[s]ome of the people who piss me off most in the world". British Poet Tom Paulin is more succinct; he says, "I feel nothing but hatred for them", and that suggests that they "should be shot dead".

In case you haven't figured it out, these people are talking about Jews--in the latter case, American-born Jews--living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Now, it's not usually considered a provocation merely to live in the wrong place; in most civilized countries, objecting to (let alone hating) people of a particular race or religion living in one's neighborhood is a symptom of crass prejudice, not injustice. In Israel, for example, where twenty percent of the population is Arab, only a tiny fringe of fanatics opposes the presence of Arab citizens in the country. Yet the idea of Jews living in a future Palestine is considered (as it was during Egyptian/Jordanian rule over the territories) unacceptable not just to Palestinians, but also to many--probably most--Western journalists.

The reasons offered are pretty weak. The classic "humiliation" complaint I have ridiculed previously is often invoked; Anthony Lewis even blames the settlements for having "ravaged the environment". The most common (and least implausible) claim is that they represent an attempt to alter the demographics of the territories, turning them into Jewish-majority areas. That might indeed be the goal of some Israeli nationalists, but their "greater Israel" vision peaked in popularity in the 1980s, is not widely shared among Israelis today, and has never even been close to plausibly implementable. (The Jewish population of the territories these days is less than 10% of the total.) And throughout the Oslo process, dismantling of most of the settlements was more or less assumed to be part of any future final deal (the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt included evacuation of settlements in the Sinai; and at Camp David in 1999, Ehud Barak explicitly offered the Palestinians removal of all the Gaza settlements and most of those in the West Bank).

Moreover, far from acting as if they view settlements in the territories as a crucial issue, Palestinian terrorists have shown a conspicuous lack of interest in distinguishing between Jews living in the occupied territories and Jews living in Israel proper. Their victims are disproportionately in the latter category, despite the obvious greater ease with which the nearer, more isolated settlements can be attacked. Indeed, Hillel Halkin argues, plausibly, that if "the notion that [the settlers] could live in a Palestinian state may seem laughably quixotic", then "so is the notion of a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace". After all, what kind of relations can a future Palestinian state be expected to have with a neighboring country whose dominant ethnicity has been officially banned from their soil?

But most of the settlement critics are clearly unconcerned about such matters; for them, the settlements are merely a pretext for condemning Israel. That much can be readily deduced from the fact that their obsession with Jews living in the West Bank is in precisely inverse proportion to their level of concern about Palestinians murdering Jews. Thomas Friedman, for example, used to fulminate at length about the evil settlers; having recently ratcheted up his rhetoric against Palestinian terrorism, he now voices his objections to the settlements at a somewhat toned-down level. Anthony Lewis, on the other hand, continues to show, in this recent article as in his past columns, far more concern for where some Jews live than for whom some Arabs kill. Alterman, as well, has a history of condemning Jewish settlement (among other sins) as an outrage while mentioning Palestinian terrorism in passing as a regrettable matter. And Tom Paulin, from the sound of it, finds terrorism against Jewish targets quite unobjectionable altogether.

This imbalance of attention is understandable; if one were to give serious consideration to both issues in turn, then the overwhelmingly greater severity of Palestinian terrorism would be self-evident (as it has lately been to Friedman), severely undercutting one's anti-Israel rhetoric. It is a measure of Israel's remarkable scrupulousness in the face of the terrorist threat that so many of her critics continue to focus so much of their ire on her supposedly heinous crime of building homes in the wrong places.

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