Geography, Fences and Security
by Robert Harris (July 2016)
Betty Purcell, a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, is best known for her former role as a current affairs producer at RTE, Ireland’s public service broadcaster. Purcell is a television producer of longstanding, who wrote a book called Inside RTÉ: A Memoir about her thirty-three year career at the Broadcasting institution, which indicated the extent to which she influenced RTE’s political culture.
Purcell trenchantly advocated against the Jewish State in the mainstream media, in the aftermath of a supposed fact-finding tour of Judea and Samaria/West Bank, organised by the Bethlehem branch of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association). Purcell’s staunch anti-Zionist claims, as expressed in an Irish Examiner article, letters, and during an RTE interview, echo most of the normative propagandistic talking points found when anti-Israel tourism activists share their insights with the international media. This article uses Purcell’s commentary as a starting point to closely critique these broad talking points.
Of land and settlements
On November 2nd, 2015, the Irish Examiner published an opinion piece by Betty Purcell, entitled ‘A boycott of Israel can help end the injustice’.
Purcell’s screed begins with a description of the appearance of a field of olive trees, near Bethlehem:
“It should be an idyllic scene. But we are with the farmer who owns the field, and his story is tragic.”
Purcell does not name the farmer and his family, upon which several of her claims are based. The absence of an identifying source for Purcell’s claims soon becomes significant. Of the farmer, it is said:
“Coming down the hill towards him is a massive Israeli settlement (illegal under international law, and condemned by the International Court of Justice in 2004).
It has already led to the confiscation of half of his land.”
Numerous invalid claims have been made in the media about the confiscation of land and property that was supposedly owned by Arab-Palestinians. Purcell does not even deem it necessary to name the area where the farmer lives, but it appears to be near the security barrier, in the environs of Bethlehem. It is difficult to deduce the “massive” Jewish settlement that Purcell references. It might be Efrat, or the neighbourhood of Gilo, which Purcell may deem a settlement but it is merely a suburb of East Jerusalem. Purcell describes this settlement as almost a living thing, coming after the unfortunate farmer, but these urban centres typically develop inward rather than outward, and do so at a relatively slow pace due to the controversy that such developments garner internationally.
Arab-Palestinian farmers make use of ‘miri’ land. Most of the contested region is made up of two classes of land: miri and ‘mewat’, the latter of which cannot be cultivated because it is barren or rocky. This legal classification was instituted under the Ottoman Empire, and remained in use throughout the British Mandate and Jordanian periods of rule, up to the present. Miri land is non-urban land capable of cultivation for which private individuals can gain rights of use as long as it is farmed. Such rights expire once the relevant piece of land is no longer being cultivated, without good cause, for three or more years. Many anti-Israel activists and NGOs describe such land as private Arab-Palestinian land, if they have or once held such cultivation rights. These organisations describe Judea and Samaria as occupied, a claim that can be contested. Yet even if Israel is an occupier, it must nonetheless abide by the legal framework of the prior sovereign. Regardless, the Israeli State is entitled to take back abandoned miri land, for tendering to other farmers.
Settlements are not illegal under international law. The region has no prior legitimate sovereign since 135 AD. The League of Nations British Mandate was set up to reconstitute a predominantly Jewish nation and Article Six of the Mandatory text enshrined in law the right for close Jewish habitation in this zone, with and without the British authority’s assistance. The United Nations charter enshrined the capacity of prior international frameworks in Article 80, which affirms that the UN cannot alter prior legal arrangements made by international bodies, unless the parties involved agree to alter their status.
Israel’s opponents assert that the presence of such Jewish neighbourhoods is contrary to international law, with respect to Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This assertion is dubious because it relates to the mass transfer of peoples into and/or out of a sovereign nation during a time of war. Said Jewish people moved into a region that has not been held by a legitimate sovereign in millennia, and did so over five decades, in a voluntary gradual manner. They did so for religious and cultural reasons, given the zone constitutes the heartland of ancient Israel, from which their ancestors were ethnically cleansed, in both ancient and quite recent times. This activity has not displaced extant local populaces.
The 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was merely an “advisory” opinion. The ICJ revealed a substantive bias, by claiming that the security barrier was a political move, rather than an act of necessary security. The assertion is an absurdity, given the death of 900 Israeli citizens, and the wounding of at least 6,000 others, in a matter of a few years. At a fundamental level, however, the ICJ ruling is factually invalid because it conflates (point 70) the ‘Class A’ League of Nations status of the Syrian and Iraqi Mandates, with that of the Palestine Mandate, which has no designated status. ‘Class A’ status designated the readiness for a given region to achieve national independence, with the short-term development of parliamentary democracy. By contrast, the authority of the Palestine Mandate is solely vested in the Mandatory power, and a national agency, with the sole purpose of reconstructing “the Jewish National Home”. In effect, the ICJ sought to dispossess the British Mandate – an instrument of international law – of its original intent: to reconstruct a nation, minimally from the Western-side of the Jordan River, including Judea and Samaria/West Bank. Article 25 states only the Eastern-side of the river can be designated for alternate purposes, leading to Jordan’s creation.
The judgement also attempted to re-write prior international agreements. The Armistice Line reflects the location of two armies in 1949, after Jordan’s invasion. Article VI of the Armistice deal affirms the Line must not be a basis for permanent boundaries. Of the fifteen-member panel, there was dissenting opinion by Rosalyn Higgins, Pieter H. Kooijmans, and Justice Thomas Buergenthal. Buergenthal criticised the contention Israel does not have a right of self defense under the United Nations Charter. He asserted that the ICJ rebutted Israel’s claims of security requirements without validation, failed to examine some issues in-depth, and largely ignored the summaries of Israel’s position provided by the United Nations, which suggests that the ICJ was intentionally selective in the material relied upon for its ruling. Notably, the ICJ excludes Israel from permanent membership.
Later in the same article, Purcell demonises the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria/West Bank:
“We went to Hebron, a Palestinian town of 45,000 people, which has become a ghost town since the “settling” of 500 Israelis there.”
The “ghost town” claim is difficult to reconcile with reality. In 1967, shortly after taking Hebron in a defensive war against Jordan, a small number of Jewish people took up residence against the wishes of Israel’s military. The community remained relatively small, and merely takes up a small portion of the city itself, which has a population that is three and a half times larger than Purcell indicates, presumably to reinforce her “ghost town” narrative. In 1997, as part of the Oslo process, Israel signed a withdrawal deal with Yasser Arafat. Thus, 80% of the city is under Palestinian Authority control. H1 is a largest section of the town which has a solely Arab-Palestinian populace of over 120,000, while H2 has a smaller Arab-Palestinian populace as well as the Jewish populace. Purcell likely refers to H2 which disingenuously ignores H1. She adds:
“Under the guise of “security considerations”, many streets have been emptied of Palestinian families, and in the Old Town, the Palestinian shopkeepers have had their market stalls closed.”
Purcell repeatedly uses scare quotes to dismiss the concerns of the Israeli authorities, with respect to security, terrorism and other forms of violence. Hebron has been a flashpoint for violence for a protracted period of time.
“Meanwhile, the settlements, which Israel has been repeatedly asked to dismantle by the UN, are growing apace. On every piece of high land, initially a few mobile homes appear. This is a settlement outpost.
Then the army moves in to support house-building.
Next nearby houses and farms are cleared for “security reasons”. And then the settlement grows, and is linked by special road to the settlement on the next hill.”
Purcell describes a scenario that is wholly incommensurate with the facts. The Israeli State has repeatedly dismantled settlement outposts, since the government deems their habitation illegal, and destroys the structures they contain. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) often clashes with Jewish settlers when dismantling their outposts. The IDF suppresses price-tag incidents and defends anti-Israel activists who attempt to confront settlers, with some organisations, such as Tayush attempting to disrupt economic life. There was particular controversy several years ago when the Israeli authorities destroyed outposts and buildings all over Judea and Samaria/West Bank, where Jewish occupants have individually and repeatedly bought the land that they are claiming.
As noted by the representative of the Israeli Embassy, processes have not been instigated by Israel, to begin the process of recognising new Jewish settlements, since the 1990s era of the Oslo II peace talks. Three settlements were given formal recognition in 2012, to finalise legal processes dating back to the 1980s and 1990s. Formal recognition were held up by the Jewish State but was reversed as a punitive measure, after the Palestinian Authority walked away from initiatory peace talks in Amman.
It can be argued that Israel’s longstanding refusal to recognise all outposts is an unacceptable, and illegal attack on the rights of Jewish residents to live in an elemental part of the mandated territory for the ‘Jewish National Home’, but it does at least demonstrate Israel’s good faith when attempting to come to a land-for-peace solution with the Arab-Palestinian community.
Purcell suggests that the Jewish residential areas of Judea and Samaria/West Bank are growing at an alarming rate but notable anti-Israel sources affirm that actual settlements take up relatively little space, circa 1% of the region. Senior Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat also stated that settlements constitute 1.1% of the region.
Purcell goes on to cite settler violence. She claims that the presence of settlers makes peace impossible:
“There are now 700,000 Israeli settlers in the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem.
They become “facts on the ground”, making a two-state solution a practical impossibility.”
It is nonsense to suggest the presence of Jewish neighbourhoods and towns in Judea and Samaria/West Bank, represent an impediment to a two-state solution. It is an established fact that the PLO walked out of talks in Camp David, Taba, etc., despite substantive concessions on territory, so this is not the substantive fact holding back a solution. Almost all major Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria/West Bank, are close to the Armistice/Green Line, and it has long been accepted by both parties, within the process, that there would be some degree of land-swapping. Settlement development has not greatly increased since the 1990s so it is entirely feasible to see most remain in a two-state solution that gives a prospective second Arab-Palestinian state much of Judea and Samaria/West Bank, in a sustainable arrangement that will be contiguous even with development of the E1 area.
The “Separation Wall”
Purcell took aim at the security barrier, which she artfully called the “Separation Wall”:
“His freedom of movement is curtailed by roadblocks and the Israeli-built Separation Wall, which snakes across the land, and divides him from his neighbours and friends. Then he smiles the warmest smile.”
When naming the security barrier the “Separation Wall”, Purcell demonstrates a clear propagandistic intent. The term evokes the notion of apartheid and negates the historic circumstance in which the development occurred, namely the Second Intifada, in which the civilian Israeli populace was subjected to approximately four years of terrorism, that largely originated in Judea and Samaria/West Bank. It led to the death of nearly a thousand Israelis, the majority of which were Jewish civilians, along with many thousands of non-fatal casualties.
Purcell’s article introduced a rather extraordinary claim:
“The Wall is built in the West Bank, and when it is completed will annex a further 47% of West Bank territory.”
This claim was challenged by a representative of Dublin’s Israeli Embassy:
“Ms Purcell states that the separation wall, when it is completed, will gobble up 47% of Palestinian territory. This is a lie; the wall is expected to take up about nine per cent of the territory. Ms Purcell does not explain why it was built in the first place: to keep potential terrorists out of Israel.”
However, Purcell stood by the charge in a letter of response:
“…there are varying estimates as to the amount of West Bank land the Separation Wall will seize. The YMCA for instance predicts the incursion will be 47%.”
If there are varying estimates, then why did Purcell choose to go with the most extreme estimate in her article? Purcell’s 47% claim is so absurd that the reader might be forgiven for thinking that she has never seen a map of Judea and Samaria/West Bank! If effectively half of Judea and Samaria/West Bank is to be taken in by the security barrier (or perhaps more since she describes it as a “a further 47%”), then it would have to absorb all or most of the large population centres close to the 1949-67 Armistice (Green) Line: Ramallah, Bethlehem in its entirety, and very likely Hebron and Nablus. Yet from Purcell’s own account, we only hear of the security barrier impacting a region that she describes as being “near Bethlehem”. To the West, the greater Bethlehem area effectively meets East Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods, for example Bethlehem’s Beit Jalla Christian enclave neighbour’s Jerusalem’s Gilo. The security barrier places an obstacle between the two, and with good reason. Beit Jalla was widely used to launch attacks on Gilo – some Jewish residents were also shot in their very homes by sniper fire. It is for this reason parts of the barrier feature a high wall structure, while over 90% uses fencing.
Other egregiously false claims have been made by anti-Israel groups about the security barrier. For example, many anti-Israel activists have claimed that the security barrier completely encircles Bethlehem, thereby turning the town into a prison. However, the barrier merely passes by the Western-most side of the town. The Security Barrier is a widely used anti-Israel propaganda motif, one that is commonly directed at the West’s Christian audiences. This is also a feature of Purcell’s article.
Despite Purcell insisting that the 47% claim is correct, she still finds the 9% assertion a “revelation”:
“Mr O’Flynn’s contention that it will take up 9% of the territory is an interesting revelation.
If the Irish Republic were to move our border posts 9% into the territory of Northern Ireland, we would, at a minimum, gobble up Newry and Derry! This is hardly a way to build neighbourly relations.”
Aside from Purcell’s fanciful assumption that a security barrier taking in 9% of Northern Ireland would necessarily swallow up those two geographically diverse population centres, she presented the security barrier as an ongoing attempt to “annex” a goodly portion of Judea and Samaria/West Bank. Following the dictates of propaganda, anti-Israel activists normatively use the word “wall”, when it is widely known that more than 9/10 of the barrier is fencing. The word is used to evoke a notion of permanence.
Israel’s Ministry of Defense has affirmed that “The sole purpose of the Security Fence, as stated in the Israeli Government decision of July 23rd 2001, is to provide security.” It has been reported that Ariel Sharon had latterly envisaged taking approximately a tenth of the region, to encompass larger Jewish settlements, while withdrawing entirely from the rest of the zone, to allow the formation of an Arab-Palestinian State. However, this plan never evolved. His successor, Ehud Olmert, offered the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, almost all of the PA’s territorial demands, with mutually agreed land-swaps. Far from keeping to the line demarked by the security barrier, Olmert’s plan designated 6.3% of the territory, which would be exchanged for 5.8% of Israeli territory behind the Green Line. Abbas walked away, although he would later make favourable remarks about the plan.
Moreover, the two-state solutions, being so envisaged as ‘two states for two peoples’, planned that Israel would still possess a portion of Judea and Samaria/West Bank. This is in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 242, which, as noted by one of its authors, Eugene W. Rostow, was not designed to force Israel back “to the “fragile” and “vulnerable” Armistice Demarcation Lines, but should retire once peace was made to what Resolution 242 called “secure and recognized” boundaries, agreed to by the parties”. It was never a pre-requisite of the substantive peace-processes, involving both parties, that every inch of Judea and Samaria/West Bank would be ceded to a second prospective Arab-Palestinian state. Professor Gerald Adler has noted that to have built the security barrier on the 1949-67 Armistice (Green) Line would have unduly pre-empted Final Status negotiations on a substantive number of issues, as envisaged in the Oslo Accords. Placing the barrier at the old Armistice Line would also negate Israel’s right to a secure border, as per Resolution 242, because much of the Armistice Line follows vulnerable low-lying areas. Policing a barrier on the old Line would thus pose a very substantive long-term risk, and so undermine its very reason d’etre.
After being criticised by the Israeli Embassy for failing to advise that the security barrier was built to stop terrorist attacks, Purcell stuck to her guns, and refused to acknowledge there are any security risks to Israel. It is however a fact that Israel suffered a dramatic escalation in terrorism during the Second Intifada, for which the barrier played a substantive role in bringing to an end, especially with respect to suicide bombing. Israel’s enemies agree. Islamic Jihad’s leader, Ramadan Abdallah Salah, admitted in March 2008 that Israel “built a separation fence in the West Bank. We do not deny that it limits the ability of the resistance [terrorist groups] to arrive deep within [Israeli territory] to carry out suicide bombing attacks, but the resistance has not surrendered…” Similarly, in June 2007, Ikhwan Online reported a statement by Hamas’ Mousa Abu Marzouq: “[carrying out] such attacks is made difficult by the security fence and the gates surrounding West Bank residents”.
The route of the security barrier was originally intended to cover 12% of Judea and Samaria/West Bank, but has been re-routed by the Israeli military in reaction to rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court, in 2004 and 2005. The Court was petitioned by NGOs representing Arab-Palestinian issues. Whilst rejecting the ICJ position that the barrier was illegal, the Supreme Court nonetheless affirmed that security measures must be proportionate to the welfare of the local populace so affected. Consequently, the barrier now covers approximately eight percent of the disputed region.
Could the security barrier be good for progress?
Arab-Palestinian society prospered during the Oslo-era process, but improvements came abruptly to an end with the Second Intifada. It is a fact that the security barrier played a fundamental role in bringing about the end of a phase of unprecedented violence originating from Judea and Samaria/West Bank.
Ultimately, in conflict situations, choices need to be made between greater or lesser evils. Such moral complexity is afforded no space in the simplified propagandistic narratives of the anti-Israel movement.
Whilst the barrier would inconvenience local residents to a varying degree, it also affords these people a far greater degree of safety, particularly in residential areas like Bethlehem, from which many Arab-Palestinians initiated attacks. The land taken for the purposes of the separation barrier is appropriated for military purposes. Of course these actions are very disruptive, but such land remains the property of owners. The owners are compensated for land usage, and for property damage. In truth, better security also facilitates economic progress, particularly with regard to tourism, an industry essential to Bethlehem, which can only flourish in times of peace. Moreover, Israel reduced its road blocks since the Intifada, and granted a greater number of permits for work within Israel. It can thus be argued that the barrier, after a period of intense strife, has had a largely positive impact for Arab-Palestinians. Those who wish to continue with conditions of strife, and especially a programme of Intifada-esque violence, are the most discommoded.
Anti-Israel propagandists like to contend that Israel’s security efforts are actually designed to harm Arab-Palestinian interests. The stance may not be convincing unless presenting a highly-distorted form of reality, in which there is no actual conflict, other than with respect to the supposed wrongful acts of the Jewish State. Purcell’s silence on the trenchant terrorism of the Second Intifada leads to a question: Does she want the waves of terror to return, which not only caused substantive suffering to the Jewish populace within Israel’s old 1949-67 Line, but also extended to Arab casualties within the areas of Judea and Samaria/West Bank she visited, because the barrier causes inconvenience in these regions?
Of roads and apartheid
Purcell attempts to assert that Apartheid motivates Israel’s policy of travel restriction into the State:
“Freedom of movement is seriously compromised for Palestinians. None of the family I stayed with were free to travel to Jerusalem, just 10km down the road. (Given that they were Palestinian Christians, they would have really enjoyed seeing the historic sites of old Jerusalem…)”
Sovereign states have a right to control access onto their territory by non-nationals. There is no inherent right of access into the State for tourists and migrants, and none should be expected particularly in the aftermath of the Second Intifada, which was possible because access was so porous. Arab-Palestinian movement into Israel is curtailed, but otherwise is quite free. Rather ironically, Purcell complains about a supposed annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria/West Bank with the security barrier, and then complains about limited access into Israel external to the barrier, as if Judea and Samaria/West Bank is an inherent part of Israel, where citizenship rights would naturally extend to Arab-Palestinians. The Jewish State has not annexed the region, and in all likelihood will only take a small portion in a future peace deal. Other anti-Israel activists, such as Peter Beinart, make similarly flawed leaps of argument. Purcell continues:
“A friend of our family worked as a labourer in Jerusalem. He left at 3.30 in the morning to get to the checkpoint, leaving himself three hours waiting time.
Sometimes he got through more quickly, but he had to be sure…”
Checkpoints during times of societal and sectarian strife are typically slow due to security risks. The process is no doubt a considerable inconvenience but this person no doubt makes the effort to work in Israel because wages are substantially higher than within Judea and Samaria/West Bank. During the Second Intifada, Israel stopped issuing work permits due to security risks. This decision was changed in the aftermath of that era, but levels of violence has ebbed and flowed since that time, requiring continued vigilance. Ironically, Purcell objects to the very thing that helps limit the risk of terrorist attacks. Israel would likely be compelled to revoke the permits, if the scale of terror were to rise again.
In a letter, Purcell raises another old propaganda stroke: “the issue of Apartheid roads, which allow settlers unique and speedy access to all parts of the West Bank and into Israel”, adding in her article:
“…the settlers have their own roads and distinctive yellow number plates, which allow them to zip quickly into Jerusalem in 15 minutes.
The Palestinians, with their white number plates are restricted to circuitous, road blocked roads, which can be closed off at any time by the military for ‘security reasons’.”
Purcell rehashes a long-discredited libel that there are separate roads solely for Jews. Although not using the same demographic identifier, which she substitutes with ‘Israeli’ and ‘Palestinian’, the ‘apartheid roads’ claim only makes sense in this context where a given critic is referring to a discriminatory policy directed at Arab people. The dedicated roads are available for all Israeli citizens, which includes Arabs of any religious persuasion. At 20% of Israel’s populace, Arabs constitute one of the nation’s biggest demographic groupings.
Purcell refers to roads between nearby Jewish neighbourhoods and Jerusalem. These roads bypass Arab-Palestinian neighbourhoods because very many terrorist attacks originated in these areas, and attacks often targeted Israeli-registered cars to lethal effect during the successive Intifadas.
Purcell incorrectly declares that these “apartheid roads” allow access to “all parts of the West Bank”. In actual fact much of the road infrastructure in the region forbids access to Israeli-registered cars, due to the danger it would pose to passengers if they ended up in Arab neighbourhoods. Indeed some roadblocks exist to prevent the access of Israeli citizens into the Arab areas of the region. This is a policy based on the preservation of life rather than discrimination. Even today, attacks, quite often perpetuated by Arab-Palestinian children, cause substantive casualties on a daily basis. Rather than a reflection on Israeli-Jewish intolerance, this is a reaction to Arab-Palestinian sectarianism over successive generations.
“The only West Bank Palestinians who have permission to go there [Israel], are people with work permits which allow them access, like South African black people under apartheid, who similarly were allowed permits for work, but not to live in certain parts of the city.”
The claim that Israel echoes Apartheid-era South Africa often relies an argument that Arab-Palestinians live in isolated ‘bantustans’, a type of township to which Black South African people were deported from areas that were designated solely for white habitation. Black people were deemed citizens of these townships. The South African ‘Pass Laws’ required a kind of passport to merely travel outside these zones to their place of work. These ‘passports’ often included remarkably invasive information. Purcell’s parallel is a nonsense, in part because there no meaningful comparison between the two Nations. Secondly, Israel has long-accepted the principle of an independent and contiguous Arab-Palestinian nation in substantive peace negotiations.
If there was truth to the apartheid charge, based on ethno-religious lines, there would be segregation in Israel for the 20% of its Arabs. However, the minority mix freely, worship freely, have no proscription on employment, and vote and stand for election. Arabic is one of Israel’s two official languages. The evidence is plentiful: Israeli Arabs serve on the Supreme Court, command ranks in the army and have political grouping in the State legislature. An Israeli-Arab man is the Nation’s deputy police commissioner. Attempts to blacken Israel ultimately make light of the suffering visited upon the indigenous people of South Africa
Jewish and Arab populaces in Judea and Samaria/West Bank operate under different legal frameworks. This fact is also cited in attempts to justify the apartheid charge. It is invalid however. Efforts to impose internal Israeli law throughout the region would be vigorously opposed by the International Community, in part because it is normative to utilise preceding legal frameworks where there is some form of military occupation. Moreover, the PA rules 97% of the Arab-Palestinian populace, for which it writes and administers law.
It is absurd to denounce Israel for supposedly attempting to annex Judea and Samaria/West Bank, but to then demand the State treat Arab-Palestinians from the region as Israeli nationals. The Arab-Palestinians of the region are not nationals of Israel, and a majority would resist efforts at naturalisation if they were given the option, as previously seen in East Jerusalem, which was annexed in 1980.
Robert Harris contributes articles to several websites on contentious political issues (not to be confused with the popular English novelist (1957-) of the same name). He also blogs at eirael.blogspot.com and lives in Ireland.
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