Unpacking Avi Shlaim’s claim in the Guardian that occupation is “the root of all evil”.

A guest post by CAMERA intern Aron White

Much is written and said about Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but it is worth challenging one of the most oft-repeated statements about Israeli settlements – that they challenge the possibility of a Palestinian state.

This claim is often repeated, and it was recently made in a Guardian op-ed by Avi Shlaim, an Oxford historian, and one of the “New Historians”. He is avowedly anti-Israel, supporting economic sanctions against Israel, and writing for anti-Israel publications like Electronic Intifada. His latest article is no different, with him placing all the blame for the conflict on Israeli. “He (Netanyahu) and his government are addicted to occupation – the root of all evil,” Shlaim wrote. This one-sided view, whereby the Israelis are to blame for everything, is not something new in the writing of Professor Shlaim – in the past, he has said that Israel is the cause of anti-Semitism around the world. Though even by his standards – the “root of all” evil seems a characterisation more symbolic of a fanatical hatred on the part of the author, than an objective reading of facts.


Avi Shlaim in the Guardian

But let us focus on the claims he makes specifically about the settlements, because some of these represent mainstream opinion. “In the teeth of almost universal condemnation, they (Netanyahu’s government) continue to expand the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, thereby deliberately destroying the basis for a viable and territorially contiguous Palestinian state.” This is a staple argument against settlements, that the existence of Jewish settlements in the West Bank torpedoes the idea of a Palestinian state. But why? Defenders of the settlements often refer to the fact that 80% of the 500,000 or so settlers live in settlement blocs, such as the Jewish areas of East Jerusalem, Maaleh Adumim and Gush Etzion, that will remain part of Israel under any peace agreement, and thus are not on land designated for a future Palestinian state. But let us focus on the 100,000 or so settlers who live outside these blocs, on land that could be a future Palestinian state as part of the two state solution. Why should the existence of 100,000 Jews amongst some 2 million Arabs challenge the “viability” of a Palestinian state? Almost every state in the world has ethnic, religious or national minorities. In fact, one need look no further than Israel itself – the world’s only Jewish state has a Arab minority of 1.8 million people, around 21% of Israel’s population. About 5% of the UK population are of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnicity, approximately 25% of the population of Switzerland are foreign nationals, and one in nine people in France is Muslim. It would be outrageous to suggest that any of these minorities challenge the “viability” of these states – such language would be found on the fringes of the extreme right, and would rightly be characterised as racist. It is a principle of Western liberal democracies that members of society should be treated equally regardless of ethnicity, race or religion. So the question returns – why should the existence of 100,000 Jews in villages and towns in a future Palestinian state make the state “unviable”?

Shlaim also claimed that Jewish settlements would break up the “territorial contiguity” of a Palestinian state. Let us apply such language in a case closer to home. The British city of Birmingham has a twenty percent Muslims minority. Do the neighbourhoods of Sparkhill and Small Heath make Birmingham territorially non-contiguous? Israel has many large Arab towns, such as Umm Al Fahm, with a population of 55,000 people, and Tayibe, with a population of 41,000 people. No one would dream of saying they break up the contiguity of Israel, so why should Israeli settlements, which even in the blocs, are around the same size as the Arab cities in Israel, break up the contiguity of a Palestinian state?

We have gotten so used to these extreme critiques of settlements that we forget the basis on which they rest – that for a Palestinian state to exist, there must be no Jewish towns and villages (no Jewish people whatsoever) within its territory. This assumption is often unchallenged, but when one analyses it, it is hard to characterise it as anything other than a manifestation of racism. There is no reason that Jews should not be able to live as a minority in a future Palestinian state, just as for generations Jews have lived as minorities in the Spanish, Polish and Iraqi states. The narrative that Jewish building threatens the very possibility of Palestinian state must be challenged. If it is really true that for a Palestinian state must have no Jews in order to be viable – is that an indictment of Israeli policy, or the Palestinians themselves?

13 replies »

  1. Shlaim’s addiction to demonizing Israel demonstrate that individuals like he and Ilan Pappe are really the lowest of dregs. While anti-Zionism among Arabs is misguided, it’s at least genuine in nature. Self-loathing motivated by a desire to appear fashionable to others is simply amoral.

  2. Well, maybe it’s all right for Jews to live in a future Palestine state. May be. However, the experience of Jews living in Spain has not been happy. It has taken about 525 years before the Jews who were expelled by los Reyes Católicos have been welcomed once more.

  3. My guess is that Shlaim left it deliberately vague. Technically his supporters might claim that he was talking about occupation in general over the course of human history. But a) it would still be preposterous to make that claim and b) clearly his intention was to disingenuously put Israel in the worst possible light and put it in the same bracket as past occupying regimes of an incomparably worse nature.

  4. As for the contiguity issue, however.
    Do the neighbourhoods of Sparkhill and Small Heath make Birmingham territorially non-contiguous?

    No, because people of all creeds are free to travel all across the region – which for the vast majority is their place of birth. It’s a different situation in the West Bank thanks to certain territorial/demographic changes brought about by physical force, of course.

    Oh, but hang on. That comment is intended to suggest that Muslim neighbourhoods in B’ham somehow constitute “foreign” entities of some occupying power from outside the city??

    why should Israeli settlements, which even in the blocs, are around the same size as the Arab cities in Israel, break up the contiguity of a Palestinian state?
    – Because, unlike in Israel, the Arab population in certain communities now have unreasonably long journeys to reach other destinations in the West Bank.

    And as you seem to be equating Arab towns in Israel with Israeli settlements in the West Bank – presumably you’d have no opposition to Palestinians (from the WB) setting up their own settlements in Israel?

  5. Put slightly differently, the conception of a State of Palestine as articulated by the PA requires the international acceptance and approval of the complete ethnic cleansing of the Jews from the former Mandate lands illegally seized by Jordan in 1948-49.
    Who knew that when Israel liberated these lands from Jordan in 1967, it was doing so on behalf of Palestinian Arabs who had shown no signs of wanting to be liberated from Jordan (they had accepted its citizenship yet somehow remained refugees) and who, through the PLO, had rejected any claims of sovereignty over lands then held by Jordan and Egypt (1964 PLO Charter, art. 24).

  6. The settlements are on less than 2% (1.7%) of Judea and Samaria. That is infinitesimal. In fact, the UK a few years ago had flown Erekat around in a plane to prove to it to him.

  7. If settlements are ultimately responsible for the lack of peace, how come there was no peace before 1967 – when there were no settlements? The real obstacle to peace is the steadfast refusal of the (so-called) Palestinians to accept a non-Islamic polity on a territory that Muslims once ruled and which they insist must remain under Muslim rule in perpetuity. That’s why the Arabs have refused every offer of a two-state solution since July 1937.

  8. The view that the settlements are the prime reason for no ‘peace’ between Israel and the Palestinians is Obama’s. In his obsession he dismissed the fact that there was just as little progress to peace by the Palestinians before settlements as after. He also didn’t care to notice that the delineation of boundaries would stop Israel building homes for Jews in areas that are officially not Israel

    Now that he is no longer around directing all the attention to this single factor we will probably see a gradual change.