THE BLOG

Sifting Fact from Fiction in the Holy Land

For ten days last month I visited the Holy Land of our warring monotheistic faiths and heard political and biblical lectures alongside Christian/spiritual authors, artists and activists such as Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne and David Wilcox. In nearly every lecture by a Palestinian (and some Israelis) one favor was requested of us:

Please focus on the facts on the ground.

The request was repeated like a talking point or mantra.

It's been said of Israel that the country fabricates "the facts on the ground" by constructing Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land, and then making claims to the land in the name of God and/or the Ottoman Empire. But when Palestinians today talk about "facts on the ground" they are referring to something else entirely. They are asking (pleading) for objectivity. They want our conclusions (and their sovereign boundaries) to be drawn from the visible evidence and decades-old international law. Apparently, politics yoked to Zionist policies can murky the otherwise clearly stated laws on human rights and land occupation.

So, here are some relevant facts as reported by B'Tselem, an Israeli non-governmental organization established in 1989 by a group of prominent Israeli public figures; lawyers, educators, journalists and members of the Knesset (the legislature of Israel) among them:

  • From 1967 to the end of 2007, Israel established 121 settlements in the West Bank that were recognized by the Interior Ministry as "communities." ... Twelve other settlements are located on land annexed by Israel in 1967 and made part of Jerusalem. Also, there are another 100 or so unrecognized settlements, referred to in the media as "outposts."
  • Israel has stolen thousands of dunams of land (a dunam is 1,000 square meters or about one-fourth of an acre) from the Palestinians. On this land, Israel has established dozens of settlements in which hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians now live. Israel forbids Palestinians to enter and use these lands. The existence of the settlements causes many violations of Palestinians' human rights, such as the right to housing, to earn a living, and freedom of movement.
  • The principal tool used to take control of land is to declare it "state land." This process began in 1979 and is based on a manipulative implementation of the Ottoman Lands Law of 1858, which applied in the area at the time of occupation. Other methods employed by Israel to take control of land include seizure for military needs, declaration of land as "abandoned assets," and the expropriation of land for public needs.
  • The Israeli government and its agencies have implemented a consistent and systematic policy intended to encourage Jewish citizens to migrate to the West Bank. One of the tools used to this end is to grant financial benefits and incentives to its citizens.
  • At the end of 2008, the number of Jewish settlers on Palestinian land in the West Bank was 479,500. This figure is based on data from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics (285,800 settlers living in the West Bank in 2008) and on growth statistics for the entire population of Jerusalem. These projections estimate the settler population on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem at nearly 200,000.
  • The establishment of settlements in the West Bank violates international humanitarian law which establishes principles that apply during war and occupation. Moreover, the settlements lead to the infringement of international human rights law. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from transferring citizens from its own territory to the occupied territory (Article 49). The Hague Regulations prohibit an occupying power from undertaking permanent changes in the occupied area unless these are due to military needs in the narrow sense of the term, or unless they are undertaken for the benefit of the local population.

President Obama's inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2009 resonated with the Arab world. "America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace," Obama declared. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

One day later his first phone call to a foreign statesman went to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian National Authority. It appeared to the world that Middle East fiction would finally be rewritten by facts on the ground.

One year later, in his first state of the union address on Jan. 27, President Obama didn't even mention the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His was the first state of the union address in at least eight years to omit the Israelis, Palestinians and the Middle East peace process, reported The Washington Post.

It's no coincidence then that on Jan. 27 our tour of the occupied Palestinian territories passed a billboard that appeared to be asking (pleading) for objective intervention. In Arabic it read: "One year after Obama... What has changed?"