On the Legitimacy of the Settlements: A Legal and Historical Perspective


by Lorenzo Kamel

[Dr Lorenzo Kamel is a Middle East historian at Bologna University and a research fellow (2013-16) at Harvard’s CMES]

It would seem unnecessary in 2015 to refer to the League of Nations or the Mandate for Palestine when discussing the legal status of the Palestinian territories. Yet, in recent years several scholars are resorting to these issues to provide a legal justification for the construction/enlargement of outposts/settlements and the indirect denial of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. This article aims to deconstruct these approaches and to shed light on the selective use of history and international law that underpins them.

The 89 pages of the Levy Report, released on 9 July 2012 by a special committee appointed in late January 2012 by PM Netanyahu to investigate whether the Israeli presence in the West Bank is to be considered an occupation or not, clarified that “with the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, the principle of recognizing the validity of existing rights of states acquired under various mandates, including of course the rights of Jews to settle in the Land of Israel by virtue of the above documents, was determined in article 80 of its charter”.

In a video entitled “the Legal Case for Israel,” international lawyer Eugene Kontorovich pointed out that “up to 1948 all this area [present-day Israel and the Palestinian territories] was Palestine reserved as a Jewish State by the League of Nations Mandate […] the legality of the Mandate jurisprudence cannot be changed.” More in general and according to an interpretation held by a growing number of scholars and by most of Israel’s right-wing parties, the preamble as well as Article 2 of the Mandate secured the establishment of the Jewish National Home on, in Howard Grief’s words, “the whole country of Palestine, not a mere part of it.” (H. Grief, The Legal Foundation and Borders of Israel under International Law (Jerusalem: Mazo, 2008), p. 106.) It would follow that, as argued by the late Eugene Rostow, “the Jewish right of settlement in the whole of western Palestine – the area west of the Jordan – survived the British withdrawal in 1948”.

But to resort to the League of Nations and the British Mandate for Palestine might be counterproductive for those committed to finding legal justifications for the construction of outposts, or the enlargement of settlements, in the Palestinian territories. The term “national home,” in fact, had no mutually agreed-upon meaning or scope and the British government was under no definite obligation, since the Mandate made any Jewish immigration subject to “suitable conditions” and contained safeguards for the rights and position of the non-Jewish communities.

True, in 1919 prominent British official Jan Christiaan Smuts, a leading figure in Lloyd George’s War Cabinet and an open supporter of racial segregation, envisaged the rise of “a great Jewish State.” Lloyd Gorge himself pointed out that “it was contemplated that when the time arrived for according representative institutions in Palestine, if the Jews had meanwhile responded to the opportunity afforded them by the idea of a National Home and had become a definite majority of the inhabitants, then Palestine would thus become a Jewish Commonwealth”.

On the other hand, the first Attorney General of Palestine, “lifelong Zionist” Norman Bentwich, contended that “a national home, as distinguished from a state, is a country where a people are acknowledged as having a recognized legal position and the opportunity of developing their cultural, social and intellectual ideals without receiving political rights”.

This position was also consistent with the one expressed a few years earlier by the general secretary and future President of the Zionist Organization Nahum Sokolov. He represented the Zionist Organization at the 1919’s Paris Peace Conference, where made it clear that the

“object of Zionism is to establish for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law […] It has been said and is still being obstinately repeated by anti-Zionists again and again, that Zionism aims at the creation of an independent ‘Jewish State’. But this is wholly fallacious. The ‘Jewish State’ was never part of the Zionist programme. The Jewish State was the title of Herzl’s first pamphlet, which had the supreme merit of forcing people to think. This pamphlet was followed by the first Zionist Congress, which accepted the Basle programme – the only programme in existence.”

Hubert Young, an important figure of the Foreign Office, wrote in November 1920 that the commitment made by London “in respect of Palestine is the Balfour Declaration constituting it a National Home for the Jewish People.” Lord Curzon corrected him: ‘No. “Establishing a National Home in Palestine for the Jewish people” – a very different proposition.” (The National Archives [TNA] FO 371/5124. Curzon, 29 Nov. 1920. See L. Kamel, Imperial Perceptions of Palestine: British Influence and Power in Late Ottoman Times (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015).)

Many other at times contradicting points of view might be quoted. Speaking in front of the Peel Commission in 1937, Winston Churchill made it clear for instance that there was nothing in the definition of the “National Home” that might have precluded “the establishment of a Jewish State.” (Palestine Royal Commission: Command Paper 5479 of 1937.)  As noted by Isaiah Friedman in his British Pan-Arab Policy, 1915-1922: “Whether [the first British High Commissioner for Palestine Herbert] Samuel had this ultimate aim in mind when conceiving his policy is dubious. But Churchill, as his response of the Peel Commission shows, did favour it. Throughout his career as Colonial Secretary, he adhered to his Zionist convictions.”

Whatever the opinion of anyone on the excerpts quoted up to this point, it must be stressed that they are nothing more than personal opinions coming mainly from pro-or-anti-Zionists, pro-or-anti-Arabs/Palestinians, anti-Semites, pro- imperial statesmen and so on. None of them has any legal value.

The first document that officially clarified the interpretation of the Mandate’s text (before its ratification) is the British White Paper of June 1922. It pointed out that the Balfour Declaration does “not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded ‘in Palestine’”. Furthermore, it stressed that the “Zionist congress” that took place in Carlsbad in September 1921 had officially accepted ‘the determination of the Jewish people to live with the Arab people on terms of unity and mutual respect, and together with them to make the common home into a flourishing community, the upbuilding of which may assure to each of its peoples an undisturbed national development.”

It is only in light of these clarifications that the preamble, and Article 2, of the Mandate can and should be understood. It is noteworthy that Zionist consent to the interpretation contained in the White Paper was requested and received before the Mandate was confirmed in July 1922. In Weizmann’s words: “It was made clear to us that confirmation of the Mandate would be conditional on our acceptance of the policy as interpreted in the White Paper [of 1922], and my colleagues and I therefore had to accept it, which we did, though not without some qualms.” (C. Weizmann, Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann (Westport: Greenwood, 1972), p. 208.)

The British Mandate for Palestine was approved on the basis of a clear understanding that sheds light on, and directly contradicts most of, the claims made at the beginning of this article.

Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself against terror and discrimination is something that any person interested in peace must support. Equally true is that the attempt to justify the construction of outposts or the enlargement of settlements in the Palestinian territories through a selective use of the League of Nations and its mandates system is a misleading and problematic approach that requires better public understanding.

To deconstruct these approaches is a precondition for any serious attempt to achieve a mutual understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

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