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Washington Report

Middle East History - It Happened in July

With First Settlement in Golan, Israel Chose Land Over Peace

By Donald Neff July/August 1993, Page 31

It was on July 15, 1967-just five weeks after the end of the Six-Day War-that Israel quietly established its first settlement in the occupied territories, despite promises to Washington that it had no intention to do so. The settlement was Kibbutz Merom Hagolan near Quneitra on the Golan Heights.' Although Israel continued to indicate it wanted peace more than land, its aggressive actions became suspect in Washington. A secret cable drafted in the State Department for transmission to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on Sept. 14 noted that Israeli policy seemed to be hardening toward retention of the occupied territories: "Israeli objectives may be shifting from original position seeking peace with no repeat no territorial gains toward one of territorial expansionism," said the cable.

Israel's aggressive actions became suspect in Washington.

It continued: "Israel's refusal to authorize the return of all refugees desiring to resume residence on West Bank...and statements by senior Israeli officials quoted in American press give rise to impression that Israeli government may be moving toward policy of seeking security simply by retaining occupied areas rather than by achieving peaceful settlement with Arabs." The cable noted Israel now seemed to be putting more emphasis on "form of settlement (direct negotiations and formal peace treaties) rather than substance .... There is concern [this stance] could in fact become rationale for territorial acquisitions." The cable concluded that it was important for Israel to demonstrate "that Israel sincerely wishes peaceful settlement above all."2

Despite protests from the United Nations and the United States that settlements were a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel continued establishing Jewish settlements. Within six months, Israel had expropriated 838 acres for new settlements, expelled hundreds of Arabs from the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, razed Palestinian refugee towns at Tiflig and near Jericho as well as 144 homes in Gaza, and secretly embarked on a major plan for founding four large settlements in Arab Jerusalem. 3 By the beginning of 1968, Israel had placed settlements in all the occupied lands of Egypt, Jordan and Syria.4

Under its Labor governments Israel pursued a steady but deliberately quiet policy of establishing settlements, disguising them as "nahals," paramilitary outposts manned by youths. The subterfuge served the purpose of muting international criticism. However, by mid-1976 the number of settlements had grown to 68 and no longer could be ignored. Finally, on March 23, 1976, the United States went public with its concerns about Israel's actions. On that date, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations William W. Scranton declared in the Security Council that Israel's settlements in the occupied territories were illegal and that its claim to all of Jerusalem was void.

Scranton said: "The United States position on the status of Jerusalem has been stated here on numerous occasions since the Arab portion of that city was occupied by Israel in 1967.... [T]he future of Jerusalem will be determined only through the instruments and processes of negotiation, agreement and accommodation. Unilateral attempts to predetermine the future have no standing.

"Next, I turn to the question of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Again, my government believes that international law sets the appropriate standards. An occupier must maintain the occupied areas as intact and unaltered as possible, without interfering with the customary life of the area, and any changes must be necessitated by the immediate needs of the occupation and be consistent with international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention speaks directly to the issue of population transfer in Article 49: 'The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.' Clearly, then, substantial resettlement of the Israeli civilian population in occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, is illegal under the convention and cannot be considered to have prejudged the outcome of future negotiations between the parties or the location of the borders of states of the Middle East. Indeed, the presence of these settlements is seen by my government as an obstacle to the success of the negotiations for a just and final peace between Israel and its neighbors. "5

The settlements issue between the United States and Israel grew more heated under President Carter. He personally declared them "illegal" during a press conference on July 28, 1977. Said Carter: "The matter of settlements in the occupied territories has always been characterized by our government, by me and my predecessors as an illegal action."6

Finally, on April 21, 1978, the State Department legal adviser, Herbert Hansell, rendered an official opinion on the issue of Israel's settlements in occupied territories, saying they were "inconsistent with international law." The opinion also asserted that the Fourth Geneva Convention applied to the West Bank and Gaza, despite Israeli claims that it did not because sovereignty over those areas was in dispute.' Despite this official finding, the Carter administration did not have the political will to support a 1979 U.N. Security Council resolution saying Israeli settlements on Arab land, including East Jerusalem, had no legal status and "constitute a serious obstruction in achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East." The vote was 12-0-3 with the United States, Britain and Norway abstaining.8

"Not Illegal"

U.S. policy was significantly weakened with the coming to power of Ronald Reagan. On Feb. 2, 1981, less than two weeks after he became president, Reagan declared: "I disagreed when the previous administration referred to them [settlements] as illegal-they're not illegal."9 This odd language left the issue in something of a semantic limbo, since Reagan never actually declared the settlements legal. Throughout his two terms Reagan maintained the attitude that settlements were simply "not illegal.?10

The result of this astonishing turn-about was reported by David A. Korn, who was the State Department's director for Israel and Arab-Israeli affairs at the time. He noted that Reagan's pronouncement left the United States without a coherent policy toward settlements: "For more than a year afterward, the United States remained mute on Israeli settlements. American silence was all the signal Mr. Begin's Likud government needed to initiate an accelerated

settlements program. By September 1982, the administration realized what damage it had done to its Middle East peace efforts and the formula "settlements are an obstacle to peace" became standard State Department usage. However, at no time during the Reagan administration's eight years in office did it revert to the stronger position that settlements are illegal. " " In fact, Secretary of State George Shultz went further in weakening the U.S. position on Sept. 9, 1982, when he told Congress that "the status of Israeli settlements must be determined in the course of the final status negotiations."'2

The Bush administration adopted Reagan's formulation that the settlements were obstacles to peace. Despite Bush's conflict with the government of Yitzhak Shamir over the use of U.S. loan guarantees in the occupied territories, at no time did his administration express the earlier language describing settlements as illegal. This reluctance by the president to invoke the stronger language was ruefully referred to publicly by Secretary of State James Baker in 1991 when he referred to the settlements that "we used to characterize as illegal, and which we now moderately characterize as an obstacle to peace."'3

The Clinton administration has not yet declared itself on this key issue. However, all early signs of Clinton's pro-Israel bias indicate that settlements will remain "not illegal" in Washington's peculiar parlance.


1 Aronson, Creating Facts, p. 16. Also see Israel Shahak, "Memory of 1967 'Ethnic Cleansing' Fuels Ideology of Golan Settlers," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 1992.

2 State to American embassy Tel Aviv, Secret cable 2942, 9114167; declassified 315179. The cable is quoted in Neff, Warriors for Jerusalem, p. 322.

3 Israeli Housing Minister Zeev Sharef revealed details of the Jerusalem settlements 2/18/71, see Facts on File 1971, p. 123.

4 Lesch, Ann. "Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories," Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1978.

5 Excerpts in The New York Times, March 25, 1976. See Bernard Gwertzman, The New York Times, March 13, 1980, for list of U.S. statements over the years of the U.S. position on Jerusalem.

6 Text is in The New York Times, July 29, 1977, and U.S. State Department, American Foreign Policy 1977-1980 (1983), p. 618.

7 Department of State, Office of the Legal Adviser, Digest of United States Practice in International Law 1978, 1575-83. Text is in Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories: Hearings Before the Subcommittee of International Organizations and on Europe and the Middle East of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, 95th Congress, 1st Ses., 1978, 167-72, and in Thorpe, Prescription for Conflict (1984), 153-58. Major excerpts are in Foundation for Middle East Peace, Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Special Report, July 1991. For a detailed discussion, see Mallison, The Palestine Problem in International Law and World Order (1986). Chapter 6.

Resolution 446, passed March 22, 1979. The text is in Sherif, United Nations Resolutions on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (1988), Volume Two: 1975-1981, p. 188.

9 The New York Times, Feb. 3, 1981.

10 See, for instance, The New York Times, Aug. 28, 1983.

11 David A. Korn, letter, The New York Times, Oct. 10, 1991.

12 Thorpe, Prescription for Conflict, p. 160.

13 David Hoffman and Jackson Diehl, The Washington Post, Sept. 18, 1991.

[SOURCE NOTES: There are a number of good studies on Israel's settlements in the Journal of Palestine Studies: Michael Adams, "Israel's Treatment of the Arabs in the Occupied Territories," Winter 1972, 19-40; Ann Mosley Lesch, "Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-1977," Autumn 1977, 26-47; Ibrahim Matar, "Israeli Settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," Autumn 1981, 93-110; and Abu-Lughod, "Israeli Settlements in Occupied Arab Lands: Conquest to Colony," Winter 1982, 16-54. An excellent book-length treatment of the subject is Aronson, Creating Facts (1987), which has a chronology since 1967, as well as maps and a list of Jewish settlements on the West Bank as of 1982; at the time they numbered 110. The Foundation for Middle East Peace publishes a bimonthly newsletter, Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, which provides news and background on Israeli settlement activity. Also see Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, 3rd ed. (1985), p. 384; Lilienthal, The Zionist Connection (1978), pp. 645-9; Mallison, The Palestine Problem in International Law and World Order (1986), pp. 225-6; Neff, Warriors for Jerusalem (1984), pp. 311-14; Tillman, The United States in the Middle East (1982), p. 170; Thorpe, Prescription for Conflict (1984).]

(c) Copyright 1995-1999, American Educational Trust. All Rights Reserved.

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