Netanyahu Uses ‘J14’ Protests to Steal More of Palestine — and Israelis Let Him

This was written two weeks ago and sent to hundreds of American newspapers — only one of which said they’d run it. We never herd back from them after embargoing this piece for days. It’s not quite timely anymore, but these were my views on the “J14” protest movement in Israel, and the analysis still holds, though the protests have died down and will likely now take — conveniently? — a back seat to recent security issues.

Responding to the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel’s streets demanding affordable housing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has not responded with the opening of land within Israel for more development, but a massive expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Israel’s “J14” protests have been compared to the huge demonstrations of the “Arab Spring” that led to the ousting of two dictators and the undermining of several more. But though J14 is supposed to be about “social justice,” it is of the type that most Israelis consider within the pale: food and housing prices, entitlements, and relations between the several Jewish ethnic groups that reside in the country. The occupation of Palestine is beyond it, and is essentially absent from the discussion.

The cost of Israeli housing is due to overly strict regulation and the hoarding of land by the state land trust, paired with a lackluster economy that has never provided robust wages for workers, especially those belonging to the non-European Jewish castes. The solution has not been to liberalize the housing industry and shake up the moribund economy, but to use the protests as a pretext for further settlement expansion on Palestinian land. The Interior Ministry is expected to approve some 4,300 units of housing in the West Bank for Israeli Jews.

The protests have allowed the state to dramatically ramp up the “acceptable” number of these Jews-only homes on land stolen from Palestinians. Just this past March the US weakly criticized a plan to build a mere 500 settlement apartments.

On the surface, it could seem that this would indeed bring down the cost of housing in Israel, even if you don’t care about legitimate Palestinian grievances. But Israel spends more than half a billion US dollars every year on maintaining and protecting this occupation and making sure Arab anger persists for many more years. In light of the two- to three-billion dollars in aid Israel receives from the United States each year, one could come to the not-rash conclusion that Americans fund this occupation.

Palestinian activists are rightly ho-hum about the movement. Electronic Intifadah’s Ali Abuminah yawns on his Twitter account at the lack of J14 profundity as another writer on the site less-snarkily questions the movement’s radical intentions.

“If Israel announced cheese price hike instead of 1000s more Jim Crow homes on stolen land, Israelis might protest,” Abuminah tweeted, referring to recent outrage over the price of cottage cheese.

Israeli columnist Didi Reider thinks J14 challenges something “deeper” than the occupation — the “principle of separation” itself. But even Reider’s account doesn’t show a willingness of Israelis to apply the alleged undermining of this “principle” outside of the 1967 borders to actual Palestinians living under occupation, instead of just grudgingly accepting that Palestinians with Israeli nationality cards should probably be treated a bit more equally.

The J14 movement could have been used to bring about radical social change in not just Israel’s regimented, top-down economy, but also in the relations between all the individuals who live in Palestine. Instead, it seems Israelis are just fine hitting a perennial pressure-valve used by Israel’s ruling class — taking another bite out of the hide of the long-suffering and marginalized Palestinian.

The Cherry-Picking Fantasy Land of Elliot Abrams

At the blog for the Council on Foreign Relations, Elliot Abrams concludes that people who think illegal settlement construction hinders the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are not living “in the real world.”

Abrams has argued before, amazingly, that settlements in the West Bank are “not a critical issue” (to which I responded). In this latest fantasy land post, Abrams pushes back against the condemnations for the newest set of approvals for 277 new homes in the West Bank city of Ariel. He argues that because these are new units within an already existing settlement, it’s all good.

The new units are to be constructed in the center of  the town, it was also announced. This is a significant fact, for construction of new units at the edges of the town would mean that the security perimeter would need to be extended to protect the new housing and the people in it. But this will not happen, and Ariel will expand in population but not in land area.  It is not, in the usual Palestinian Authority parlance, “taking more Palestinian land.”

Right, they’re just increasing the population of previously stolen Palestinian land. Not only is this virtually a distinction without a difference, but it pretends dishonestly that “expanding in population but not in land area” is typical for West Bank settlement construction. Abrams leaves out the 4,300 new units Israel approved last week for construction in Palestinian East Jerusalem (which Abrams calls “Israel’s capital”). These thousands were in addition to the 930 new homes approved for construction around the same area just days earlier. Abrams is intentionally white-washing the fact that Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes has skyrocketed this year with 356 structures demolished and 700 people displaced in the first six months 2011. These were not instances where new units were built in the center of existing settlements, but rather where innocent Palestinian people were expelled from their homes so that they could be demolished and given to Israeli settlers. Like, for example, the incident at the end of July where the Israeli government sued a group of poor Bedouin Palestinians in the Negev desert for over $500,000, the claimed costs of demolishing their village each time they rebuilt it. Israeli authorities destroyed, and the Bedouin rebuilt, the homes in al-Araqib more than 20 times.

Abrams leaves out those nasty little details so he can keep his imaginary framework for the entire conflict nice and neatly undisturbed. And then of course he chimes in with this little number:

It is not reasonable to view it as a violation of international law and a threat to a peace agreement every time bricks and studs and drywall show up at the center of an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

Except that it is. They are a violation of international law according to the consensus view of the international community. The Geneva Conventions clearly states that forcible transfers and deportations people in occupied lands is prohibited, as is the transfer of “parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Not to mention that numerous international agreements, as well as the International Court of Justice, have declared the settlements illegal. Heck, even Israel sometimes admits certain settlements to be illegal.

Not Elliot Abrams though. He’s a bit too far down the rabbit hole…