Beyond the usual lip service, I don’t suppose Condoleeza Rice will have much to say in Israel this week about West Bank Jewish settlement expansion. Maybe she’ll compliment last Thursday’s Israeli High Court decision to fine two construction companies $23,000 for building a new neighborhood on the outskirts of Modiin Ilit, the largest Jewish settlement. It turns out construction took place in defiance of an earlier court order. But she won’t press Israel to demolish the rows of apartment buildings. She knows that, with rare exceptions, Israeli bulldozers go into action only against Arab-owned homes, as they did once again in the Negev less than a week ago.
The new buildings, like much of the rest of the settlement, are on land taken from the Palestinian village of Bil’in. I first visited Bil’in two years ago with a delegation from Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace when residents still hoped to prevent construction of the Separation Barrier that would keep villagers from reaching more than half the village’s land. They failed. Today their access is blocked by a series of fences and roads, part of the long barrier winding its way throughout the West Bank, often in the form of an actual wall.
Every Friday since fence construction began more than 20 months ago, villagers and their supporters have staged a peaceful march and rally that gains the attention of the mainstream media only because Israeli soldiers routinely attack the nonviolent protesters with little or no provocation. I saw this myself during two recent protests, in October and December.
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz,
the new neighborhood is being built on the private land of the Palestinian village Bil’in. The land was purchased by land dealers through dubious powers of attorney, then rezoned as state land and leased or sold to settlers’ building companies.
Israel has built Jewish settlements in the West Bank since the Palestinian occupation began following the 1967 Six Day War. Generally considered illegal under international law, and often even under Israeli law, construction continues despite periodic court orders, political pronouncements, and occasional pro forma American objections. Law is one thing, practice quite something else.
The International Solidarity Movement, whose members regularly attend the weekly Bil’in protests, explains it like this:
Occupation authorities annexed 1,100 dunums (275 acres) of the land of Bil’in in 1991. At the time, the confiscation was justified by reference to an old Ottoman-era law allowing for confiscation of unused land. Much later, it was revealed that in order to demonstrate that the coveted land was “unused,” the State made use of photos of seasonal crop farm land taken when the crops were not yet in season. More than a decade after the confiscation, Israeli colonial settlements began to be built, following a typical pattern of settlement expansion, whereby first, Palestinian land is declared State property and then eventually distributed to Israelis.
Israel’s difficulty maneuvering between competing pulls to be a Jewish state and a democratic state magnifies the universal tendency to use law when it’s convenient and ignore law when that’s more convenient. Unfortunately for Palestinians who happen to be in the way, Condoleeza Rice won’t try too hard to get Israel to change much of anything.
Dennis Fox, Emeritus Associate Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, was recently a Fulbright Senior Specialist at Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, Israel, where he taught a seminar on Psychology, Law and Justice, and a consultant at Birzeit University’s Institute of Law in Ramallah, on the West Bank near Bil’in. His reports and photographs are available through his blog.