Politicizing Ethnic Cleansing

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video on YouTube. A video that may shock, anger, and possibly horrify you. Here it is, and please don’t say I didn’t warn you:

Oh wait, no, that was a campaign ad from last February. Still, horrifying.

This was last week’s video:

Netanyahu’s attempt to conflate “opposition to illegal Israeli settlements” with “ethnic cleansing,” a lie that crops up periodically among settlement defenders, is one of the more outrageous attempts at propaganda you’re likely to see. Now, look, maybe given the chance Palestinians in the West Bank would forcibly expel Jews living in a new Palestinian state, though they’ve said they would not do that. But the actual issue at hand is Palestinian opposition to Israeli settlements, which isn’t even close to the same thing. The United States has no problem with Canadian citizens living in its borders, provided they follow the applicable immigration laws to do so, but I bet we’d have a huge problem if Canada asserted political control over swathes of U.S. territory on the grounds that they were now “Canadian settlements.”

The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. The issue isn’t Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, it’s Jewish settlers living in the West Bank but doing so in physically separate settlements under Israeli governance. These settlements are illegal under international law, and the fact is that they are indeed a huge obstacle to a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, in large part because they are explicitly arranged to gobble up the most valuable West Bank land and to effectively prevent the establishment of a sustainable Palestinian state. It’s certainly true that “no one would seriously claim that the nearly two million Arabs living inside Israel – that they’re an obstacle to peace” (though Netanyahu does use them to fear monger when it’s politically convenient), because those two million Arabs are living within Israel under Israeli laws and the control of the Israeli government. There’s no comparison between them and Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

If Netanyahu wants to test his ethnic cleansing claims, there’s a simple way to do it: put the settlements and settlers under Palestinian authority and see what happens. Of course, you’d have to get the settlers to stay in place once the hand over was complete, and, realistically, they almost certainly wouldn’t:

The best response—by an American administration and by a Palestinian leader—would be to call the bluff. Fine, settlers can stay if they want. In fact, there’s no reason to make border changes to keep them under Israeli rule. Like other residents of newly independent Palestine, settlers who decide to stay put will become Palestinian citizens. Their position will be the mirror image of that of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Just as Israel will make clear that the State of Palestine does not represent Arabs living in Israel, so too Israel will not represent Jews living in Palestine. They will pay taxes to the State of Palestine, which will almost certainly spend part of the money on absorbing members of the Palestinian diaspora who return to the homeland.

The former settlers will live under Palestinian law and the authority of Palestinian courts. They should be prepared for lawsuits by Palestinians with very strong claims to ownership of the land on which large parts of the settlements stand. Where they don’t have such legal problems, they should know that Palestinians will be moving in next door, into homes that belonged to Israelis who chose to return to Israel.

The number of settlers who would stay under those conditions could meet in a small cafe in Ramallah, perhaps at one table. All the rest would do the Zionist thing and move to the state of Israel.

The voluntary departure of Israeli settlers who would rather leave than live under a Palestinian state is not, of course, ethnic cleansing.

Netanyahu’s video drew sharp criticism from the United Nations and even some more subdued criticism from Washington, and it seems pretty clear that people who actually think his argument makes sense are people who believe that the West Bank should be entirely Jewish (an outcome whose achievement would require actual ethnic cleansing to bring about). It was about as well received as his claim last month that he cares more about the Palestinians than the Palestinians’ own leaders do.

This is the kind of rhetorical nonsense that belittles the actual suffering of real victims of ethnic cleansing and makes it more difficult to find some way to tamp down the daily acts of violence that take place between Israelis and Palestinians–to say nothing of the challenge the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to pose for regional stability. For the record, if you’re reading this, Mr. Prime Minister, this is what ethnic cleansing looks like:

The 77-page report, “Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan,” documents how Sudanese government forces have overseen and directly participated in massacres, summary executions of civilians, burnings of towns and villages, and the forcible depopulation of wide swathes of land long-inhabited by the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups.

“There can be no doubt about the Sudanese government’s culpability in crimes against humanity in Darfur,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “The U.N. Security Council must not ignore the brutal facts.”

And this:

Once there were 20,000 Muslims in Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today, there are perhaps 4,000. Many were killed during the Bosnian civil war, under the campaign of forced expulsion carried out by Bosnian Serb forces. The rest fled to other parts of Bosnia or went into exile abroad. The war transformed Banja Luka into a Bosnian Serb stronghold, with ethnic Muslims and Croats a distinct minority.

Also this:

In the Aug. 4 report, OCHA cited 684 buildings as having been demolished so far this year in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, compared to 531 for all of 2015. This 25% increase in demolitions has largely affected East Jerusalem and locations designated as part of Area C under the Oslo Accord. Area C constitutes more than 60% of the West Bank and is under Israeli administrative and security control. To date this year, 574 Palestinian structures have been destroyed in Area C, compared to 453 in 2015. In East Jerusalem, the number of buildings destroyed up until Aug. 4 stands at 110, compared to 78 in 2015.

Palestinians and Israeli activists fear that Israel is focusing on Area C and East Jerusalem for political reasons. Salim Shawamreh, whose home in East Jerusalem’s Anata village was destroyed for the seventh time, was forced to temporarily move to Kufr Aqab. He hopes one day to return to his land and rebuild his house.


As part of the plan, some 20,000 to 30,000 Bedouon will be relocated to recognized settlements including Rahat, Khura and Ksayfe. The plan also includes financial compensation for those relocated, as well as alternate plots of land. The program is estimated to cost the state NIS 6.8 billion.

Opponents of the plan have accusing the government of evacuating people from their homes for no justified reason and against their will.

Bedouin representative called the decision “a declaration of war,” and some 150 members of the community gathered outside the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem on Sunday to protest the decision.


Palestine has decried Israel’s practice of siphoning off water supplies from large areas of the occupied West Bank.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the office of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said that Israel was “waging a water war against the Palestinians.

“Israel wants to prevent Palestinians from leading a dignified life and uses its control over our water resources to this end; while illegal Israeli settlements enjoy uninterrupted water service, Palestinians are forced to spend great sums of money to buy water that is theirs in the first place,” Hamdallah said in the statement.

And this:

Mazen Qirrish, the owner of the house, told Palestinian Authority (PA)-run Wafa News Agency that Israeli police broke into the house and gave him an eviction order issued by an Israeli court, claiming that Qirrish was no longer a “protected tenant.”

Muhannad Jubara, the lawyer for the family, told Ma’an in May that the Qirrish family fell under “protected status,” which refers to certain Palestinians in East Jerusalem who held rental agreements with the Jordanian government before 1967, when Israel occupied the Palestinian territory.

Leaseholders are considered protected tenants for three generations. However, when the last family member of the third generation dies, the family loses the status.

The Israeli-issued court order evicted Qirrish and eight family members from a home they had lived in for 58 years, according to Wafa.


Israeli authorities have been conducting a land survey in the southern occupied West Bank near Bethlehem in order to declare state lands to build a new settlement, a move which Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah called “another step towards cutting the West Bank in two” on Monday.

In a statement released on Monday, Israeli NGO Peace Now said the Israeli government had notified the Israeli Supreme Court on Aug. 10 that it had begun a land survey in the area of the Palestinian village of Nahla in the West Bank district of Bethlehem, with the aim of declaring “state lands” in the area.

And this too:

Insisting that your government be allowed to govern its own territory, on the other hand, is not ethnic cleansing.

Netanyahu can certainly smell what he was shoveling in that address, but he shoveled it nevertheless, because he thinks it’s a strong political message. And Netanyahu has some need of strong political messaging these days, because after trading his former right-wing defense minister (Moshe Ya’alon) for his current ultra right-wing defense minister (Avigdor Lieberman), thereby narrowing what was already a very narrow political coalition (though the center of gravity in Israeli politics is so far off the right-wing fringe that this move actually increased his governing coalition in the Knesset), he’s suddenly facing a few challenges to his premiership. No, not from the left; that ship has long since sailed. But former PM, and another former Netanyahu defense minister, Ehud Barak has suddenly reemerged on the national political stage with a series of pointed attacks against Netanyahu’s performance.

Barak is probably not much of a threat to Netanyahu. Yair Lapid, on the other hand, leads a centrist party, Yesh Atid, that is currently outpolling Likud. Israel isn’t scheduled to hold elections until 2019, but if Netanyahu’s slim majority coalition were to collapse and Yesh Atid were to win more seats in the subsequent election, Lapid would probably be given first crack at forming a new government. Netanyahu, who is currently embroiled in a feud with several past Israeli generals who are actually more dovish than he is, may really be testing even the right-wing Israeli electorate’s tolerance for extreme right wing governance.

The Palestinian Authority is in the midst of some political turmoil of its own. Mahmud Abbas is still pretty old, and he still doesn’t seem to have an obvious successor as PA president. And the truth is, most Palestinians would like to see Abbas go now, without waiting around to die in office. Abbas is getting pressured to reconcile with former PA Gaza chief Mohammed Dahlan, who was booted out of the PA after he lost Gaza to Hamas and has been accused by his former pals of, among other things, having murdered Yasser Arafat. Dahlan has a lot of regional support from Egypt (still one of the dominant players in Palestinian affairs) and the UAE (which can back him with a lot of money). But Abbas is also getting pressure from Qatar (which, if anything, has more money to play with than the UAE), as well as from within the PA, not to reconcile with Dahlan. But it’s not clear that any other potential successor can keep the PA from breaking apart once Abbas goes–hell, it’s not clear that anybody can keep the PA from breaking apart, period.

Meanwhile, the universally-desired–supposedly–two-state solution is at the point where, if it were a hospital patient, we’d be talking about disconnecting life support. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons, but it’s clear that one of the biggest is–wait for it–Israeli settlements:

A report released on Friday by the so-called Quartet – United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia – called on Israel to stop its policy of building settlements on occupied land and restricting Palestinian development.

Israeli policy “is steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution,” it said. It also urged the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, take steps to end incitement to violence against Israelis, condemn “all acts of terrorism” and do more to combat them.

“The Quartet report sounds an alarm bell that we are on a dangerous slope towards a one-state reality that is incompatible with the national aspirations of both peoples,” wrote Nickolay Mladenov, U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, in a commentary emailed to journalists on Sunday.

He also addressed Palestinian and Israeli criticism of the Quartet report. “Who will make the argument that more cannot be done to end incitement?” he asked. “Can anyone question that illegal settlements … are not undermining the prospect for a two-state solution?”

All the reports in the world don’t matter, though, if the countries involved in the peace process don’t support them with action. In this case, action would mean putting pressure on the Israelis to stop building new settlements and taking steps to redress the imbalance of power in the current Israel-Palestine relationship. But that won’t happen. Consequently, the prospects for peace are so dim, and the ability of the Quartet to influence events so negligible, that there are signs the EU is bailing on the whole enterprise. The US, meanwhile, seems to be too busy throwing money at the Israelis to attempt to leverage more peace talks. And with the best-case outcome of November’s election already promising that US-Israel relations would be “stronger than ever” under her watch, it’s unlikely that this state of affairs is going to improve.

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