Comment: Britain should stop complaining about Israeli settlements

By Sam Hailes

Media fatigue has kicked in. The UK broadcast and print media relegated the war crimes being committed by Syria to deep within their papers and bulletins weeks ago.

Yesterday evening's news didn't tell you how many people died in Syria. Israel's plan to build some homes on an empty mountain was deemed more newsworthy.

It's been a bad few weeks for the UK's allies Israel. The Jewish state's eventual retaliation on the terrorists who had been throwing rockets at them for years brought international condemnation.

Israel's opposition to the Palestinian's UN bid was also heavily criticised by much of the international community. And now Israel's enemies have been energised into campaigning against Binyamin Netanyahu's announcement that Israel will build 3,000 homes in a West Bank area known as E1.

The argument that such settlements are illegal and block peace is now so common that few stop to consider why they are illegal and how they block peace. Those who ask those two questions while carefully studying history discover something incredible: The settlements aren't illegal.

Policy makers often disregard this minority view as ludicrous, but do they consider the evidence? Ignoring a controversial viewpoint is so much easier than carefully researching it. The UK, along with the entire world has chosen this former option of ignorance. But those wanting to hear the other, rarely reported side of the story need only read on…

In 1922 Britain, under Winston Churchill's authority gave two-thirds of what was then called Palestine to the Hashemites and Jordan was born. With the Arabs catered for, the remaining third of the territory – which included E1 – was given to the Jews.

On May 14th 1948, the tiny Jewish nation declared independence and modern day Israel was born. Five Arab armies immediately attempted to wipe the new-born-state off the face of the earth.

The Israelis miraculously won this war of independence but lost E1 and the entire West Bank to the Jordanians. (Not the Palestinians because the Palestinian Liberation Organisation – PLO – had not yet been founded).

During the 19 years that the Jordanians illegally occupied the West Bank, the idea of creating a Palestinian state was never mooted.

Curiously, it wasn't until Israel won back the West Bank from the Jordanians in 1967 that the recently established PLO demanded the territory for a Palestinian state.

After Israel won back the West Bank in 1967's Six Day War, the PLO established itself as an enemy of both Israel and the Jordanian government. But the PLO, and therefore the Palestinians never owned any part of the West Bank. The West Bank had never been under Palestinian sovereignty. The dispute was between Israel and King Hussein of Jordan.

Eventually King Hussein conceded defeat. He had lost the territory. Israel, acting in self-defence, had won it fairly.

This brief summary of modern history explains why some international lawyers, politicians and journalists accept that the West Bank is not occupied but disputed territory. It could certainly never be claimed that the West Bank is occupied Palestinian territory as it was Jordan, not the Palestinians who previously owned the territory.

The lesson is simple: Politicians shouldn't use phrases they don't understand. 'Illegal under international law' sounds authoritative and intelligent, but when it comes to West Bank settlements it simply isn't correct.

But even the staunchest supporter of Israel will admit the timing of the latest announcement to build homes is inappropriate. While Israel's defensive operation in Gaza had the pure motive of protecting innocent civilians, Sunday's building announcement is viewed as mere political points scoring in the run up to the January elections.

The Israelis announcement is also a response to the Palestinians recent recognition at the UN. It was wrong for the Palestinians to ignore Israeli offers of negotiation in favour of running to the UN, but Israel's decision to build in E1 will do nothing to win the PA back to the table.

While Israel's timing is unfortunate, the UK government's reaction is over the top and unhelpful. You don't hound your allies for building homes. You condemn those who are killing innocent civilians. Hamas' onslaught of rockets into Israel for the past decade is worth condemning. So is Syria. But arguing over Israel building a house on a mountain thousands of miles away simply isn't worth the Foreign Office's time.

It seems the best way forward is for all sides to grow up. Despite having every right to build, Israel should get her priorities straight and do everything to win the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. This will involve yet another settlement freeze. (The last one didn't bring much success but Israel must try again). In return for Israel's compromise re: settlements, the UK should reassess its own legal position on settlements.

Who am I kidding? That's unlikely, so let's help the UK government out and suggest a much simpler token of appreciation to the Israelis for their (as yet hypothetical) agreement to back down on settlements. Why doesn't the UK increase the pressure on the EU to investigate what has been achieved with the billions of euros which have been donated to the Palestinian Authority year on year? Such a move would be highly appropriate considering the PA currently enforces a law that says selling land to Jews is punishable by death.

It's time for the UK government to decide which action is more deserving of their time: Telling ambassadors to stop building Jewish homes on Jewish land, or ceasing to fund a government which unashamedly kills innocent people.

Sam Hailes is a Freelance Journalist, blogger for The Times of Israel and Media Assistant at Christian Friends of Israel in the UK.

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