Settlements, Lies and Land Grabs

Israel’s government lied to the U.S. 47 years ago when it set up Gush Etzion’s first settlement. Will the U.S. response to a massive new land takeover remain as ineffectual as back then?

Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg
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Construction work in Elazar, a settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc, in July 2010.
Construction work in Elazar, a settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc, in July 2010.Credit: AP
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

In Washington, the assistant secretary of state told the No. 2 diplomat at the Israeli embassy that settlement activity in Gush Etzion undermined American efforts to protect Israel at the United Nations. Israel shouldn't provide ammunition for "those at the UN who would interpret [Israel's] position as hardening." The assistant secretary stressed he was telling anyone who asked him that Israel had assured the U.S. administration that "all options remain open for negotiation." The Israeli diplomat responded that the kerfuffle was the result of hostile "reports in [the] U.S. press" such as one in The New York Times, which created a false impression of U.S. "unhappiness."

The date on the State Department cable to the U.S. embassy in Israel reporting this exchange is September 29, 1967.

It was five days after the Israeli cabinet had approved a civilian settlement at the site of Kfar Etzion, a kibbutz that fell to Arab forces in 1948, and two days after the settlers arrived there. The cable portrays polite diplomatic dishonesty: The assistant secretary knew that the divided Israeli cabinet was unable to take a position on the West Bank's future, so all options really weren't open. The Israeli diplomat knew that the administration was indeed unhappy about the settlement announcement – but blaming the media was so convenient.

Lies, settlements, and Gush Etzion: You could think nothing has changed in 47 years.

The dishonesty was more blatant during a virtually simultaneous conversation between a U.S. diplomat in Israel and Foreign Ministry official Shlomo Argov. According to the embassy's report, Argov described Kfar Etzion as an outpost of the IDF's Nahal branch. Since peace wasn't on the horizon, the government had decided to establish "military positions of control in occupied territory… for [the] necessary length of time," Argov said. He admitted that Israelis had an "attachment" to the site, but claimed there were "elements of coincidence" in the fact that the Nahal unit included children of the original Kfar Etzion settlers.

This was the official line, but it was a lie. Prime Minister Eshkol wanted to reestablish kibbutzim lost in '48, and children of the original Gush Etzion settlers wanted the right of return. Asked to weigh in, the Foreign Ministry's legal adviser wrote, "Civilian settlement in the administered territories violates explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention." However, he wrote, temporary military bases were permissible. So Kfar Etzion was labeled a Nahal outpost. A secret army directive described this as "a 'cover' for the purposes of the diplomatic battle," and added that Kfar Etzion would have no actual connection to the IDF.

And the Americans? They preferred to accept the story and deceive themselves as long as possible. Only the next April did a message from State to the U.S. embassy in Israel take note of reports that some Nahal outposts in the occupied territories were "in fact, civilian kibbutzim."

Kfar Etzion was the second settlement in occupied territory. The first, a secular kibbutz in the Golan, was initially labeled a temporary "work camp." So the settlement enterprise began: On a foundation of falsehoods.

And so it continues, to this day. At the end of the Gaza War, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that it had "created a new diplomatic horizon for Israel." If you really, really wanted to believe, you might have thought options were open for peace. Four days later, the government showed what options it had in mind, when Civil Administration took possession of nearly 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) in Gush Etzion for more settlement building.

Officially, the government didn't seize that land. It only certified the fact that under Ottoman law still in force, the real estate belongs to the state. This is the official line. In reality, since 1980 the state has deliberately exploited the Ottoman law and the lack of precise deeds for most of the West Bank to seize vast tracts and use them for settlement. That is: Private land is declared public land and then used for private housing for Israelis.

These days, it's the High Court of Justice that has taken on the task of self-deception. This week, the court ruled on a petition by Palestinians in the Gush Etzion area against an earlier declaration of state land. The court said nothing had been expropriated; the state had only certified the existing fact of its ownership. The court refused to consider whether deeds that the petitioners held referred to the land in question, since a lower appeals committee had rejected that claim. On a narrower point, the court suggested sending the case back to appeals committee - but it otherwise accepted a cover story for expropriation.

For its part, the U.S. administration has publicly criticized the latest land grab. Whether this will lead to a change in U.S. behavior at the United Nations remains to be seen. Don't get your hopes up.

You could think nothing has changed in Gush Etzion in 47 years - except for tens of thousands of Israelis moving into the settlements built in that time, and construction of walls and bypass roads, and continued progress toward closing all options for peace.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG

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