The world’s attention is focussed on the “plight” of settler-colonists from the Gaza Strip and some in the West Bank, who have to leave their homes. Daily reports from the local and international press produce countless human interest stories of the trauma of displacement of seemingly innocent settlers, forced to leave behind their home and their livelihoods. But without exception settlers knew that they were moving to an area that was conquered in war. In contracts for the sale or rental of land in the occupied territories there was a clause that explicitly stated their temporary nature.1
At the same time, there is deafening silence on the fact that the construction of the settlements is a violation of international law, as reaffirmed in the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, and on how the international community has condoned this illegal situation and is paying for the costs of withdrawal. It is seldom reported that settlers are being compensated. How many realise that each settler family is due to receive an average of several hundred thousand dollars as “compensation”? How many US taxpayers realise that they, not the Israelis, are going to be covering most of the costs for this?
And who, for a moment, pauses to reflect on whether Palestinians - some of whom have been deprived of their homes and livelihood for decades - will receive restitution for their own suffering?
Paying the piper … but calling the tune?
Despite the fact that the US is paying such a hefty bill for compensating settlers, it would be misleading to think that Israel is simply bearing under pressure from the international community. Certainly it is true that the Security Council, including the US, has long insisted that Israel withdraw to the pre-1967 borders. It is also true that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had confirmed numerous resolutions and expert reports that the settlements have all been constructed illegally and that they must be dismantled.
Yet, none of these demands have been followed up by concrete action. Israel’s response has been to ignore the ICJ decision as “irrelevant”, accelerate its settlement programme in the West Bank and present the Gaza “withdrawal” as a significant, one-sided “concession”, while offering no promises of a full withdrawal from all Occupied Territories.
Israel is withdrawing from Gaza because the price it had to pay for the protection was too high and not only in terms of money: more and more soldiers have refused to serve in Gaza.
Creating new facts on the ground
It is becoming very clear that Israel’s objective in continuing its illegal construction of settlements has been to redraw the “facts on the ground” in order to annex additional land for greater “Eretz” Israel. There is no open debate in Israel over this illegal expansion, and the consequences for Palestinians whose homes are destroyed as a result. The dispute boils down to how far Israel’s colonial boundaries ought to extend and how to maintain a dominantly Jewish state that the world will accept.
Even progressive Israelis who express the “limits of their compassion” for Israeli settlers in Gaza tend to forget to address the issue of Israel’s original, forced displacement of over 800.000 Palestinians in 1948. Today, hardly any Israelis are aware that the “Israeli towns” of Ashkelon and Ashdod - where many of the Gaza settlers are likely to be resettled to - were just a couple of generations ago Palestinian towns called Al-Majdal and al-Dalhamiyya, both in the former district of Tiberias.2
While Israel was founding its state, Palestinians were being systematically forced outside what became the borders of Israel, into Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. Later, Israel’s military occupied large parts of these countries, followed by a partial withdrawal where it held onto Gaza, the West Bank, Golan Heights and Southern Lebanon. Israel reaffirmed its intention to keep the newly conquered territories by establishing new settler colonies. The hope was that the remaining Palestinians would simply move on to other countries. Historian Nur Masalha remarked that Israel saw this process as “population exchanges”, where numerous options were explored by Israel’s early administrators for transferring Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and other countries, “in exchange” for the nascent Jewish-Zionist population of Israel.3
It is important to note that both placing settlers and seeking to remove Palestinians amount to two of the gravest violations of international humanitarian law.
Right to compensation is universal
Palestinians’ right to compensation was confirmed this month by the United Nations. Building on July 2005 recommendations of Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing and Property Restitution, the UN aims to ensure universal standards concerning land, housing and property rights of those who are displaced.4
These guidelines are crucial. Firstly, they make clear that no amount of interference by a state deprives individuals of their right to be protected from displacement. Secondly, the guidelines insist that in the event of being arbitrarily deprived of their housing, land or property, they are entitled to restitution and/or compensation. Thirdly, they are entitled to have their claim of restitution/compensation considered by an independent body. The guidelines also provide that governments are required to consult with and ensure there is adequate participation of people who may be affected by displacement.5 Most importantly of all, the guidelines reaffirm the principle of non-discrimination, that everyone has the same rights to be protected, irrespective of race, religion or “other status”.
Palestinians in Gaza, many of whom were already forcibly displaced in the period leading up to 1948, when Zionist militias sought to create a Jewish majority in Israel, have experienced additional displacement during Israel’s occupation of Gaza. They have seen their (second) homes destroyed, their olive trees uprooted, their livestock slaughtered and their livelihoods dissipated by both settlers and soldiers. They too are entitled to restitution and compensation.
The Israeli government and its courts have now approved a programme of compensating settlers, which the USA will mostly pay for. At the same time, the Israeli government has been seeking to pass a law that would deprive Palestinians of the right to claim compensation against Israel for violation of any law committed in the Occupied Territories.6 It is the most outrageous double standard, which once again displays the inequality of Jews and Palestinians in Israeli government policy.
The struggle continues
It is not enough for the world to focus its attention on the “plight” of settlers, who are being very generously compensated for having been used by Sharon and his colleagues as a “human shield” in Occupied Palestinian Territory.
While some Palestinians are already celebrating the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, it is important to see this as but one step in the complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from all Occupied Territories. While the world’s attention is focussed on the settlers, one must also not forget that Palestinians too are entitled to restitution and compensation.
Jeff Handmaker and Adri Nieuwhof are both independent advisors and human rights advocates.