Readers write: Israeli land claims, and a response

Letter to the editor for the Feb. 20, 2017, weekly magazine.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men collect water from a spring to make matza, a traditional handmade Passover unleavened bread, near Jerusalem on April 4, 2017.

In the Feb. 20 Christian Science Monitor Weekly UpFront column, “What decides a claim on land?” columnist John Yemma negatively portrays Israel’s West Bank settlement policies. However, his basic points are faulty: (1) He mischaracterizes a key Geneva Convention provision and (2) plays down the significance of the Jewish ancestral connection to the land by falsely arguing that it is no stronger a claim than that of a supposed ancestral connection for the Palestinian Arabs. 

Accusing Israel of violating international law by virtue of its settlement enterprise, Mr. Yemma writes, “Under the Geneva Conventions, which Israel has signed, an occupying power cannot transfer its population onto occupied territory.” In fact, the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention in Article 49, Paragraph 6 to which Yemma presumably refers does include this provision: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” But Israeli government policy has not compelled any Israeli citizens to move into the territory. Israelis themselves have relocated to the West Bank generally for religious reasons or for a lower cost of living. The distinction is, of course, important. Additionally, arguably the provision is not applicable to the West Bank because it was not the legally held territory of any party to the Geneva Conventions at the time that Israel captured it in the 1967 defensive Six-Day War. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross clarifies the 49(6) statement in its Commentary to the Fourth Geneva Convention, edited by Jean S. Pictet (1958), pages 3-9, which says about 49(6): “It is intended to prevent a practice adopted during the Second World War by certain Powers [mainly Nazis and the Soviet Union], which transferred portions of their own population to occupied territory for political and racial reasons or in order, as they claimed, to colonize those territories. Such transfers worsened the economic situation of the native population and endangered their separate existence as a race.” But there is nothing to link such circumstances to Israel’s settlement policy. 

Moreover, even if 49(6) is prejudicially interpreted to encompass individual voluntary actions of Israeli civilians, another legal hurdle exists. The prior document that legally enabled the settlement enterprise would have to be unjustifiably deemed null and void. That document is the 1922 League of Nations Palestine Mandate, Article 6. This document, which laid down the Jewish legal rights in Palestine, encourages “close settlement by Jews on the land” west of the Jordan River [the heartland of ancient Israel]. This covered not only what was to become Israel in 1948 but also the West Bank (and Gaza Strip, though Israel chose to withdraw from that area in 2005). The mandate, including Article 6, is upheld by the 1945 United Nations Charter, Chapter XII (International Trusteeship System), Article 80 (sometimes called “the Palestine article”). Article 80 states, among other things, that nothing in it shall “alter in any manner whatsoever the rights of any states or any peoples or the terms of existing international agreements” to which UN members may be parties. 

Second, Yemma falsely equates both sides as to rights by ancestry. He writes, "Israelis have a historical right to live in the territory both because of biblical ties to Judea and Samaria and because Jewish communities lived in the region for hundreds of years. Palestinians have ancient ties to the Holy Land as well. The biblical Philistines, among other peoples, were contemporaneous with the biblical Israelites. While it is not certain that today’s Palestinians are their direct descendants, it is not certain either that most of today’s Israelis are direct descendants of Israelites. Most modern Israelis migrated from Europe, Russia, and North Africa. Most modern Palestinians are a mixture of ethnicities that have ebbed and flowed through the Middle East for thousands of years. In any case, Palestinian families were well established throughout the Holy Land when the Zionist settlement movement began in the late 19th century.” 

But the idea that today's Palestinian Arabs could have descended from the ancient Philistines “among other peoples” is historical fantasy. The Philistines were not Middle Eastern but rather an Aegean Sea people – they were certainly not Arabs. Moreover, they were destroyed by the Babylonians at the end of the 7th century BC and accordingly disappeared from history. The “other peoples” claimed as ancestors in the Palestinian narrative are the ancient non-Arab Canaanites, who likewise disappeared from history thousands of years ago. Furthermore, there exists no evidence that any Philistine or Canaanite descendants survived.

Yemma’s claim that “Palestinian families were well established throughout the Holy Land when the Zionist settlement movement began in the late 19th century” is conjecture. A mainly recent origin for the Palestinian Arabs is more likely. This proposition is advanced by scholars including Joan Peters (1984 book “From Time Immemorial”) and Efraim Karsh (1997 book “Fabricating Israeli history”), King's College London historian and founding director of its Middle East and Mediterranean studies program. Peters cited historical documents (including Ottoman records) showing that Arab settlers had flocked to Palestine beginning only in the late 1800s, drawn there by economic opportunities created by Jewish settlers. 

On the other hand, the ancient Israelites certainly did not disappear from history as did the Philistines and Canaanites. There is a continuous Jewish diaspora history, from the Roman expulsions to the rebirth of Israel as a Jewish state, and there is ample archeological evidence in the Holy Land connecting the Jewish people to the land. Furthermore, there’s the biological evidence. Modern DNA testing (for example, the findings of geneticist Doron Behar and colleagues) indicates a likelihood for both Jewish genealogical continuity and Middle Eastern origins for the vast majority of the world’s Jews including Israelis. Finally, consider that while Israeli Jews speak the same language (Hebrew) and worship the same God (of the Bible) as the ancient Israelis, it cannot be shown that Palestinian Arabs either speak the language or worship the gods of the ancient Philistines or Canaanites.

Myron Kaplan

Senior Analyst

Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA)

Mr. Yemma responds:

Regarding Myron Kaplan's letter in response to my Feb. 20 column in The Christian Science Monitor:

I cited the Geneva Conventions because UN members base their resolutions on it. But I noted that while that "seems like an open-and-shut case,” Israel "argues that the clock didn't start in 1967, that the occupied territory was never a part of a sovereign state before it was annexed by Jordan after 1948, and that Israelis have a historical right to live in the territory both because of biblical ties to Judea and Samaria and because Jewish communities lived in the region for hundreds of years." I was thus making the point that Mr. Kaplan suggests I overlooked: that the Geneva Conventions cannot be seen as definitive.

I mentioned the unclear origin of the Palestinian people and the uncertain relationship between ancient Philistines and today's Palestinians (for more, see "Why Are Palestinians Called Palestinians?,” Haaretz, Oct. 29, 2015) and between ancient Israelites and most of today's Israelis (see “Blood Brothers: Palestinians and Jews Share Genetic Roots,” Haaretz, Oct. 20, 2015). My point was that Israelites lived among other peoples, as do Israelis. Thus, I concluded, coexistence is imperative.

I don't think I missed the mark on accuracy or fairness.


John Yemma

Columnist, The Christian Science Monitor

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