Monthly Archives: October 2010

Muslim extremism stems from alienation

The recent arrest of Farooque Ahmed on charges of conspiring with undercover law enforcement officers to bomb metro stations in the greater DC area has once again turned attention to the growing problem of “homegrown” terrorist threats emerging on the fringes of the Muslim American community. While this overdetermined phenomenon lacks a single, discrete cause or simple profile, some rough outlines can be confidently sketched about the nature and motivation of this form of extremism.

First and foremost, these “lone wolf” or spontaneous homegrown eruptions of Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist impulses, like most forms of domestic terrorism, would appear to be principally the result of alienation. This alienation, from mainstream American society and
culture or US government policies, sets the stage in an individual’s mind for an interest in extremist ideology. Particularly when combined with personal crises or meltdowns, alienation, extremist ideology and despair are frequently found at the basis of violent outbursts or impulses.

In the case of domestic Muslim extremism, alienation is almost always not only from mainstream American society, but from the mainstream Muslim American community as well. In almost all recent cases of domestic Muslim extremism, the accused have been little, if at all, known to local Muslim communities, and almost never engaged in local mosque, community or civic activities. This means that while Muslim Americans will collectively and unfairly pay a price for this kind of extremist sentiment or activity, there is very little their community organizations can do to protect against it.

Such extremists do not have a theology as such, and are largely driven by political rather than religious ideas, although their sense of the political may be expressed through religiously-inflected language. Generally speaking such extremists are motivated by a paranoid and chauvinist worldview akin to ethnic nationalism. This is also true of the more organized self-described “Salafist-Jihadist” groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic world.

Essentially, this worldview centers on the notion that there is a colonialist and predatory relationship between the West and the Islamic world, motivated by some nefarious purpose ranging from control of the region’s natural resources to a global conspiracy to destroy or defeat Islam as a religious or political force. As with all forms of violent extremism, these individuals see themselves as “fighting back” against an aggressive enemy, although in the Arab and Islamic worlds the fight is focused mainly on local regimes that are seen as either too pro-Western or insufficiently “Islamic,” or both.

The recent spate of cases involving Americans of Pakistani and Afghan origin that seem to be connected to anger about US military presence and activities in Afghanistan or drone strikes in Pakistan demonstrate the connection between some of these extremist sentiments and more widespread objections and even outrage about US policies prevalent in those societies.

This worldview is also the latest soup du jour of an apparently omnipresent appetite for political extremism at the margins of both American society and many parts of the world. It taps into sentiments of alienation, grievance, injustice, righteous anger and implacable opposition to the status quo that would have drawn vulnerable individuals into the orbit of violent ultraleft factions in the 1960s and 70s or the ultraright militia movement in the 1990s, to cite two other recent examples. The apparently disproportionate number of converts to extreme versions of Islam involved in such violent radicalism is another indication of this phenomenon.

The good news is that very few of these cases have resulted in injury or loss of life, and many of them seem to involve individuals with the apparent willingness but not the ability to actually cause harm. In several high-profile cases, undercover law enforcement officers egged these individuals on, sometimes to the point of appearing to border on entrapment.

In other cases, especially involving individuals with military training such as the Fort Hood murder Maj. Nidal Hasan, as with the Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the tragedies have been all too real.

But, while there is no doubt homegrown, spontaneous and “lone wolf” instances of domestic Muslim American extremism are a growing concern, especially for the Muslim American community itself which pays the highest price for such radicalism, the reality is that the actual threat it poses to life and property is, as far as anyone can tell, very limited indeed. As long as it remains, as it is, a marginal phenomenon attracting fringe, alienated and isolated individuals, it will be a challenge with which our society can readily cope.

No to a third intifada

Whether or not a solution to the crisis over settlements is achieved in the coming days, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are in serious trouble. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted unnamed Western officials as saying the talks are “going nowhere.” And the most cautious, sober and measured of the senior PLO leadership, Yasser Abed Rabbo who is a member of the negotiating team, has been moved to declare that, “there will be no serious political process with Netanyahu’s government.”

Most reports strongly suggest that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been unforthcoming on permanent status issues. According to these sources, Netanyahu refuses to meaningfully discuss core question such as borders and insists that security must be the main issue at this stage. This has led to frustration not only among the Palestinians and other Arabs, but in many circles in the West and the United States.

This frustration is amplified by Netanyahu’s refusal thus far to accept an exceptionally generous American inducement package in exchange for a 60-day extension to the partial settlement moratorium that expired in September. Indeed, the New York Times called the package “overly generous.” Moreover, it is unclear what the Obama administration expects to be different in two months time, when the parties are likely to find themselves in precisely the same situation. If the Americans have a game-changing approach to unveil over the course of eight weeks, it’s the best-kept secret in Washington.

The American hope may be that borders can be agreed in short order, rendering the settlement issue largely moot, but the parties themselves show little sign of believing that. We therefore have to face the fact that negotiations would appear to be both stalled in substance and threatened with a political crisis that may produce a breakdown. It might be possible to keep the ball in the air by returning to indirect negotiations or finding some other temporary stopgaps. But the experience of the past few weeks does not augur well for prospects of any kind of significant success in the foreseeable future.

The prospect of a breakdown again raises the spectre of another intifada, since many Palestinians may conclude that the occupation is either permanent or that diplomacy is simply an ineffective tool in resolving it and that a new uprising is the only remaining way to pressure Israel.

The flashpoints are obvious. Especially in Arab neighbourhoods of occupied East Jerusalem, tensions are running high. Recently a Palestinian man was shot under extremely questionable circumstances by a settler guard, and a 14-month-old baby was killed by teargas fired by Israeli security forces. Numerous buildings and even neighbourhoods are under fierce contention between aggressive settlers supported by both the national and municipal Israeli authorities and Palestinians struggling to cling onto their homes. If another intifada erupts, it may very well begin there.

But it is essential that Palestinians do not turn to, or allow themselves to be sucked into, another round of violence with Israel. A third intifada would undoubtedly follow the pattern established by the relationship of the end of the first intifada to its beginning, and of the second intifada to the first; a process has entailed ever-increasing levels of violence, death and religious fanaticism on both sides. Because of this pattern, the consequences of the second intifada were disastrous for the Palestinian people and national movement. A third is likely to be even worse.

For Israel, a third intifada could well signal the squandering of the last opportunity to divest itself of the occupation in a rational, workable manner, rendering what will become the de facto Israeli state as neither Jewish nor democratic in any meaningful sense and developing and entrenching an apartheid character especially in the occupied territories.

It is imperative that some way is found to keep diplomacy alive, even if it means a return to less-than-optimal indirect negotiations. In the end, both parties have no option but to work towards a negotiated two-state peace agreement or continue with an ever-deteriorating conflict. It is essential that international actors such as the United States, the European Union and the Arab League help find a formula to allow Israel to make restrained settlement expansion, and the Palestinians to make continued negotiations, politically plausible among both of their domestic constituencies.

In the meanwhile, Palestinians should redouble their state and institution building efforts with international support, recently reiterated by both the United States and the Quartet. And they should continue to explore what kind of momentum can be secured to complement diplomacy through non-violent protests, and boycotts of settlement, but not Israeli, goods. Confronting the occupation at every level is essential, but a return to violence, no matter who instigates it, would be a disastrous miscalculation on the Palestinian side.

Answering Yaacov Lozowick on Israel as a Jewish state and much more

I don’t usually respond to other bloggers commenting on my work, but in this case the question was put to me directly by someone called Yaacov Lozowick, who wrote a response to my recent blog posting about PM Netanyahu’s ridiculous demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” whatever that means, in return for an eight week extension of the temporary, partial settlement moratorium. I guess it’s worth responding to somebody once in a while just to clear things up, so here goes.

The first point of contention is his claim that there is no one even muting (I’m sure that’s what Mr. Lozowick means, even though he wrote “mooting”) Palestinian incitement against Israel. This is completely wrong. There has been a great deal of effort on the part of the PA to clean up the education and clerical systems under their control and to promote a discourse that celebrates diplomacy, state and institution building, boycotts of settlements and settlement goods but not Israel, nonviolent resistance against abusive occupation practices such as the wall, and security cooperation where reasonable and appropriate. There is no doubt there is a long way to go on containing incitement, but similarly there is an intense amount of Israeli incitement against Palestinians. Perhaps the most shocking recent version was the call by Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Youssef for God to wipe out Pres. Abbas, and all the rest of the Palestinians for that matter. Some Israelis speak as if incitement were a cause rather than effect of the conflict (in classical rhetoric this is known as a metalepsis, which typically functions as the substitution of an effect for a cause), and as if it were a Palestinian problem exclusively and not a major problem among Israelis.

Mr. Lozowick mistakenly identifies me as a Palestinian (I am, in fact, a Lebanese-American, but I work for a Palestinian-American organization and largely on the Palestinian-Israel conflict). I do not argue that the right of return or anything else connected to the refugees is an issue to be discussed at the end of any negotiating process. On the contrary, I think all four of the major permanent status issues identified by Pres. Obama at the UN in 2009 should be on the table right away. On this score, it would appear that I take a very different view than that of PM Netanyahu, who seems to only want to discuss security at present. Mr. Lozowick falls into a rather typical trap of suggesting that because Palestinians haven’t accepted some Israeli proposals in the past, they never will in the future or that they somehow turned their back on peace or negotiations. There have been many proposals from both sides, and none of them with regard to permanent status issues have been accepted by the other side in toto. That’s why we don’t have a peace agreement yet. This ruse relies on people not being aware of the numerous Palestinian proposals that Israel has rejected out of hand over many decades. At the moment, the PLO through Yasser Abed Rabbo has proposed recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state” in return for a commitment to return to the 1967 borders. Israel, naturally, rejected this counter offer just as swiftly and categorically as the Palestinians rejected Netanyahu’s latest cynical maneuver.

For the record, I do not think the Jerusalem either must or should be divided again. I think the city should be shared, open and freely accessed by both parties and by adherents of all three major monotheistic faiths. I’ve got no interest, and I don’t think the Palestinian or Israeli peoples do either, in the city being re-divided with barbed wire fencing, checkpoints and so forth. What we are talking about is the city serving as a capital for both Israel and a new Palestinian state, with divided sovereignty in different areas. How that sovereignty is administered is another matter, and obviously a complex formula is going to be required to solve this conundrum. There has been a great deal of very significant research done on how to manage this problem by many different institutions and think tanks. It’s a complex problem that requires a very creative solution. Most crucially, I think it’s obvious that a special regime for the holy basin and/or the old city would be required. It would be a sui genris arrangement for a sui genris place, and I think that’s what’s going to be required.

One final point for Mr. Lozowick: he’s quite wrong that Palestinians have never discussed the question of return, or other refugee issues. On the contrary, they were heavily discussed at Camp David in 2000 and agreement was apparently quite close some months later at Taba. I think Palestinian negotiators and all serious observers have understood for a long time that there simply will not be a mass return of Palestinian refugees to Israel because for Israel this is a bottom-line and a dealbreaker. I think, similarly, all serious Israelis and other observers have understood that there cannot be a peace agreement that does not provide for East Jerusalem to serve as the Palestinian capital, because for Palestinians this is a bottom line and a dealbreaker. These are, reciprocally, the most difficult political issues facing both societies, and leadership from both sides can be fairly accused of feeding their people large doses of political narcotics about the “sacred, inviolable right of return” which encourages Palestinians to imagine will actually be exercised sometime in the foreseeable future by large numbers of people, and “Jerusalem, the eternal undivided capital of the Jewish people,” thereby encouraging Israelis to imagine that a peace agreement can be achieved without a compromise on Jerusalem. One of the most important building blocks for a successful peace agreement would be much more honesty in the public discourse, and especially from political leaders, on both sides regarding these two very difficult issues.

It’s because of their reciprocal character that Palestinians, or anyone else, shouldn’t have seriously considered Netanyahu’s proposal for exchanging recognition of Israel’s “Jewish character” for an eight week extension of the temporary, partial moratorium. It’s widely reported that Patrick Crowley, the State Department spokesman, backed Israel’s demand at a recent press conference. I think that’s completely false. If you read what he said, it most importantly begins with, "It's not for us to endorse this idea or this idea.” So much for an endorsement. Just like President Bush he referred to Israel as “the homeland of the Jewish people,” language, as I have noted in the past, that is pulled directly from the Balfour Declaration and lacking any great political or legal significance. He said Israel was “a state for the Jewish people,” but also “for other citizens of other faiths as well,” an important addendum that has been downplayed if not ignored by the media, especially the Israeli press. Crowley urged the Palestinians to make a counteroffer, and now they have. Israel, naturally, isn’t interested.

There’s a great deal of shameless spinning going on in the media these days, for example the idea that one of the inducements being offered by the Obama administration for a temporary extension of the temporary, partial moratorium is American support for long-term Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley following Palestinian independence. No one outside of official circles really knows for certain the substance of the proposed inducements, but even what has been leaked, assuming it’s at all accurate, strikes me as quite vague in this regard and requires a good deal of creative interpretation to come to that conclusion. Obviously some people have an interest in spinning it that way, but it doesn’t make it true.

UPDATE: Mr. Lozowick has responded on his own blog and clarified that he did mean mean “mooted” and not muted. Fair enough. (Obviously I do know the difference between the two terms, in spite of an obviously racist comment on his posting by somebody else, but frankly muted makes much more sense in his sentence than mooted, so I was being charitable.)

Ibish unexpurgated: what the Jerusalem Post left out of my op-ed today

On closer inspection, I find that the Jerusalem Post has excised at least the final paragraph of my op-ed in their newspaper today. They may have taken out more, but I don't have time to doublecheck that just at present. I'm sure they feel entitled to do that. It's their newspaper after all. But it's my article. I'll post the full version shortly, but the missing final paragraph reads:

In the meanwhile, Palestinians should redouble their state and institution building efforts with international support, recently reiterated by both the United States and the Quartet. And they should continue to explore what kind of momentum can be secured to complement diplomacy through nonviolent protests, and boycotts of settlement, but not Israeli, goods. Confronting the occupation at every level is essential, but a return to violence, no matter who instigates it, would be a disastrous miscalculation on the Palestinian side.

 I guess I can see what they didn't like about that. But it's crucially important to my overall argument. I think my readers deserve the unexpurgated version.

Biding time in Palestinian-Israeli Negotiations

The United States will most probably succeed in convincing Israel to extend its partial and temporary settlement moratorium for another two or three months. It has already offered a package of benefits that seems completely disproportionate to what is being asked for, and which even US newspaperThe New York Times has described as “overly generous.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, at the time of writing of this column, declined to accept what was being offered and is apparently holding out for more. And no wonder. The US administration looks desperate, almost panicked, to keep the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians going until after the US November midterm elections.

On Thursday, Washington signed a deal long-coveted by Tel Aviv to sell the new and highly-advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets to the Jewish state, a rarefied military support that is completely unconnected to Israel’s cooperation on peace. Reports said that the US administration might even commit to some kind of a long-term Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley after a Palestinian independence becomes a reality, a thing that would be considered a deal breaker for many Palestinians. In other words, Washington might be offering Israel commitments it cannot live up to in the long run.

But the bigger question remains: What is really the point behind all this?

Keeping the Middle East peace talks going is an important, laudable and essential goal. After all, nothing will ever be resolved without diplomacy. However, why the US administration is fetishizing a settlement freeze which will be short-lived and which has always been a political gimmick rather than a real restriction on settlement expansion is highly questionable. Obviously, the most immediate goal is to find a formula allowing the Palestinians to remain in the negotiations. A settlement moratorium extension would certainly guarantee that. But what then?

It is not clear what would change in eight or even 12 weeks. The only difference would be that Israel will then have under its belt a large number of US concessions and guarantees without having done anything substantial to earn them. Wouldn’t the damage to the credibility and viability of negotiations and the Palestinian negotiators be even greater then?

It is possible that the US administration has a plan, but if it does, then it is the best-kept secret in Washington. No one knows what Washington expects to accomplish within two or three months should Tel Aviv agree to extend its settlement freeze. The widespread suspicion is that the US will deal with that problem when it is faced with it.

But this has to be more than an exercise in kicking the can down the road. There couldn’t be a greater tragedy for the parties, the region and the political environment in general than for those who maintained from the beginning that failed negotiations would be worse than no negotiations to be proven right in the end.

The US administration now finds itself riding the tiger: in two or three months, it will probably be able to either seize the postelection moment to start really cracking heads together on peace – a thing that will come at an exorbitant price – or it can face one of the most humiliating US diplomatic failures in living memory. One thing is for certain, we are getting to the point where there really isn’t a lot of middle ground left.

So, if Israel decides it makes most sense to just pocket whatever it is the US is offering in exchange for a few weeks of more of the same – even if it comes at a certain political cost to Netanyahu – then Washington will have to act quickly in order to prevent a humiliating and possibly disastrous rapid return to the political crisis of the past few weeks.

The most obvious measure would be an effort to have all parties move quickly to negotiate the future borders of a Palestinian state and to try to resolve the issue before the settlement freeze expires. While it is true that most points pertaining to the land issue have been negotiated almost to completion in the past, there is every reason to be skeptical that the present Israeli government and Palestinian leadership would be capable of reaching a formula in the immediate future that satisfies both parties. This would also leave the question of Jerusalem unresolved, and potentially explosive, unless both sides agree to maintain the status quo along the lines of the Clinton parameters, with Israel only building in established Jewish neighborhoods.

It would probably make more sense to focus in the immediate future on realities on the ground, deliverables that will improve the quality of life for both parties, such as increased security arrangements for the Israelis and an expansion of the Palestinian Authority’s role in West Bank Areas B and C that are presently under Israeli control. But until the crisis over settlements, which is not only an Israeli-Palestinian problem, but an Israeli-US one as well, is resolved rather than endlessly postponed, it is not going to be possible even to focus on modest deliverables, let alone permanent status issues.

Netanyahu’s ?Jewish state? demand is ultimately about Jerusalem

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal earlier today that Israel might agree to a two-month extension of the partial, temporary settlement moratorium expired in late September on condition that Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" is insulting and frivolous. It was correctly rejected out of hand by the Palestinian leadership and ignored by the United States government. It's the strongest indication so far that Netanyahu is just not serious about any of this, a suspicion those of us committed to a two state peace agreement have been doing our best to resist since he returned to power.

That this may be, in the end a core Israeli demand for a final status agreement is entirely possible. It would then be a question of negotiating what kind of language might satisfy both Palestinians and Israelis. I have pointed out many times that Netanyahu's idée fixe formula that Israel must be acknowledged as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is almost certainly unacceptable because of its numerous dubious implications. However, whatever language may or may not be part of any final status agreement, it almost certainly has to come at the end of the process in the context of the establishment of a Palestinian state and a resolution of the refugee final status issue. Indeed, Palestinian acknowledgment of Israel's character as a “Jewish state,” whatever that may mean (Jewish Israelis themselves are deeply divided on the question), is not even a final status issue at all. Palestinians have already recognized Israel in the letters of mutual recognition that kicked off the Oslo negotiation process formally, although Israel has never recognized the Palestinian right to statehood formally or informally. That, for now, is more than sufficient to be going forward with.

The real permanent status issues have been defined a long time ago, and were identified clearly by Pres. Obama during his 2009 UN General Assembly speech: security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. Obviously there are other well-known lesser issues that have final status aspects such as water and other issues regarding the relationship of the new Palestinian state to Israel. But the ethnic or religious character of the two states has never been an issue in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and was not an issue between Israel and either Egypt or Jordan. If the Israelis most unreasonably nonetheless insist on introducing the concept, it will not be worth continuing the conflict and the occupation to refuse to try to find a reasonable formula. But this will have to be one of the very last things negotiated because of its implications, especially for refugees.

In his speech before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on September 20, Netanyahu was very clear about this new demand, and very frank about its implications. He said, “just as the Jewish state has granted Jews around the world the right to immigrate to Israel, a Palestinian state could decide to grant Palestinians around the world the right to immigrate to their state. But Palestinian refugees do not have a right to come to the Jewish state.”

In other words, in Netanyahu's own interpretation of the legal and political implications of any such recognition, the right of return of refugees would be foreclosed and one of the key permanent status issues would be resolved before it had been negotiated. And that's what this is always been about: an end run around the right of return. And the point of that, crucially, is that negotiators, including most importantly the Americans, have always assumed that there would have to be reciprocal very painful and politically difficult compromises on refugees and Jerusalem. The Israeli effort to end-run and foreclose the refugee issue through Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” before the refugee question is resolved through negotiations is, ultimately, an effort to preserve an ability of Israel to refuse to compromise on Jerusalem and possibly even get away with it in the eyes of at least the United States.

This was recognized by Bush administration officials at the Annapolis meeting when Prime Minister Olmert and Foreign Minister Livni first tried to get the Palestinians to make such a declaration and then tried to get President Bush to say something similar in his address. Bush simply used innocuous language drawn directly from the Balfour Declaration about Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, which had no legal or political implications about refugees or the refugee question as a final status issue to be negotiated. Olmert and Livni more or less let the matter go. But since returning to power, Netanyahu has increasingly focused on it. In the past it's been possible to have two equally compelling interpretations about this: 1) it's a sign of his frivolousness about negotiations because he is focusing on language that can never be acceptable to Palestinians and bringing the issue forward in a way that is also totally unworkable or 2) it's a sign of the seriousness because it is something he is going to assure the Israeli right that he, uniquely, can deliver even as he makes territorial and other compromises.

After today's shenanigans, it's much harder to believe in the second interpretation. Netanyahu is essentially asking the Palestinians to give up on not one, but in effect two of the four major permanent status issues: refugees and, you game it out logically, in effect Jerusalem as well. He's asking for this in return for an eight week extension of a partial, temporary moratorium that led to a minor slowdown but not a halt in settlement expansion and never covered Jerusalem. What he's really asking for is an explicit concession on a new, highly problematic and emotional non-permanent status issue, not to mention massive implicit concessions on permanent status issues, in return for a very partial and very temporary meeting of Israel's obligations under Phase One of the Roadmap of the Middle East Quartet. There is no basis in international law for Israel to claim a right to continue any form of settlement activity whatsoever. It has been asked not to do so repeatedly by its major ally the United States. And it is obliged by the Roadmap not to do so. The idea that it would fulfill this obligation partially and for eight weeks in exchange for one of the most far-reaching Palestinian gestures imaginable with extremely serious implications for two of the most important permanent status issues is, frankly, insulting and indeed frivolous.

It's become harder to maintain that the Israeli Prime Minister is taking these negotiations seriously after such a proclamation. The fact that it comes on the same day that his cabinet has adopted proposed legislation that would require only people classified as non-Jews by the Israeli government who are seeking Israeli citizenship to swear a loyalty oath to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state only adds insult to injury. The loyalty oath is aimed at Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens who marry Palestinian citizens of Israel, the only substantial group of non-Jews with a pathway to Israeli citizenship. And, since people who are classified as Jewish by the Israeli state, which distinguishes between ethnicity (which it calls “nationality”) as opposed to citizenship, are exempt from this requirement, it is overtly racist and discriminatory. In other words, if this is the context of how Israel's Jewish character is expressed with regard to Palestinians, asking Palestinians to embrace it in any context, let alone in exchange for a paltry eight-week extension of a partial, temporary moratorium that was always more of a gimmick than a reality, is really absurd and disheartening. If Netanyahu is at all serious about the possibility of a negotiated agreement, he's going to have to stop this shameless grandstanding and frivolous demagoguery.

Palestinian state building has nothing in common with Israeli settlement activity

An Ibishblog reader writes:

"I recently saw an interesting view on West Bank building activity.  It posited that both Palestinian and Israeli building activity there created 'facts on the ground' that changed the Oslo 'status quo.'  Hence, building by EITHER side equally implicated the letter and spirit of the Oslo Accords.  So (the opinion writer said), if either side is forbidden to build, BOTH sides should be forbidden to build.  Thus, no unilateral moritorium is fair or warranted (according to the pundit I'm paraphrasing). I don't recall seeing this view expressed before.  Do you think it has any validity?"

Thanks for the interesting question. I've seen this argument cropping up recently as well, although it gets very little traction because it's so obviously fatuous and specious. The whole argument is premised on the idea that there is a moral and legal equivalency between the Israeli settler presence in the occupied territories and the indigenous Palestinian one. Of course that's not the case. It's a subset of the old argument that these are “disputed” territories rather than occupied ones, a claim that relies entirely on ignoring the mountain of UN Security Council resolutions designating East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as territories under foreign military occupation, and Israel as the occupying power. If there is a dispute, it is between Israel and the unanimous voice of the international community, including the body legally authorized to make these judgments. Therefore, from a legal and political standpoint, there is no dispute. There is only an occupation.

The fact that Israel is the occupying power in the occupied territories carries with it tremendous legal and political significance, which of course is why Israel generally speaking denies that it is the occupying power or that the territories are occupied. For a start, a very large body of international law prohibits settling or colonizing territories under occupation, as well as the acquisition of territory by war. Most notably, Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits occupying powers from transferring its civilian population into territories under occupation. Supporters of the settlement movement sometimes try to get around this by arguing that it refers only to forced transfer of such populations. Again, this is obviously specious since there are numerous other provisions of the Convention already prohibiting forced transfers of populations against their will, which would make Article 49 redundant and meaningless. Moreover, the Geneva Convention was adopted in the aftermath of the second world war, and in full memory of colonization and population transfers engaged in by the axis powers, especially Nazi Germany, and this was clearly seen as a human rights abuse against people living under occupation. This is why a prohibition of such activity was included in a human rights instrument designed to protect civilians in a time or context of war. In other words, resting simply on the Geneva Convention, we can say with certainty that beyond simply being illegal, Israel's settlement activities are a human rights violation against the civilian Palestinian population in the occupied territories.

There isn't any aspect of international law that prohibits a population living under occupation from continuing to live and develop its society insofar as it can in spite of the occupation. This claim is a direct attack on the vital Palestinian Authority program for state and institution building, laying the groundwork of an independent Palestinian state in spite of the occupation and with the aim of ending the occupation. But while Israel's settlement activities are illegal under international law and are required to be frozen entirely under Phase One of the Roadmap of the Middle East Quartet, nothing in the Oslo documents, any other treaty obligation, any aspect of international law, or the Roadmap, obliges Palestinians to cease to engage in social, infrastructural, institutional and economic development because Israel is bound by its legal and political obligations not to engage in settlement activity because it is a human rights violation against the Palestinian people living under occupation.

Moreover, Israeli settlement activity is a direct threat to the potential for a two-state peace agreement, which is the only viable path to ending the conflict and the occupation that began in 1967. Among many other things, it makes the future border much more difficult to draw, increases and entrenches the often belligerent Israeli constituency opposed to territorial compromise, and expands the circle of Israelis with a financial stake in continuing the occupation. In contrast, Palestinian state and institution building efforts and all forms of social and economic development promote the prospects of a two-state peace agreement, since the Palestinian state must be functional when it comes into existence and be a successful and not a failed state. As Palestinians continue to demand and press for the right of self-determination, it is not only legal and reasonable, it is necessary, for them to take up the responsibilities of self-government. Any objection to this program can only come from an implicit starting point that is hostile to a two state agreement as a peaceful outcome. There is no doubt that anybody who makes this case is a supporter of the occupation and wishes to see it continue indefinitely. Why else would they try to impede Palestinian development? There is no other plausible motivation. In the same sense, I think it's fair to say all of us who oppose continued Israeli settlement activity take this position because we are first and foremost opposed to the occupation and wish to see it come to an end. This is an a priori assumption that defines opposition to settlement activity.

So, it boils down to this: those who are in favor of peace are generally opposed to settlement activity, recognizing that it poses a serious threat to prospects a workable, reasonable agreement, and are generally supportive of Palestinian state and institution building as a necessary bedrock for that two-state arrangement. Conversely, those who are opposed to peace, at least on the Israeli side, are creating spurious and pseudo-legal arguments opposing Palestinian state and institution building and economic development because they correctly see it as a very significant, and quite possibly decisive, long-term strategic threat to the occupation which they support. As for the argument itself, it's so transparently absurd we needn't bother with it. It's not creating any traction, even in Israel, and internationally will be laughed off any multilateral table at which it may be presented. It's a joke, and not a very funny one at that.