If there is one item of conventional wisdom that unites most of the world’s governments, the UN, various humanitarian, civil rights, and religious organizations, and diverse academics and intellectuals, it is that Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank of the old Palestine Mandate are the only real impediment to peace between the Arabs and Jews. In this view, if only the Jewish settlers -- all 380,000 of them -- would pack up and move back to Israel proper, abandoning their neat suburban villages and planned communities to the Palestinians, peace would reign over the MidEast. This naïve article of faith, endlessly repeated by its partisans, conveniently ignores the hard fact that there were no such settlements in 1948 when nascent Israel fought the massed Arab armies intent on its destruction, nor at the time of the 1956 war, nor when the PLO was formed in 1964 pledged to the elimination of the Jewish state, nor before the 1967 war when the West Bank territories were seized from the attacking Jordanian army and Gaza from the Egyptians. If the elimination of Jewish settlements is the key to peace, then how to explain the absence of peace before there were any such settlements?
The answer is that in the Arab view there have been intrusive Jewish settlements such as Tel Aviv and Haifa since the end of WWI destroyed the Ottoman empire, and the League of Nations adopted an international policy for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Palestine Mandate under British governance. This policy encouraged Jewish settlement of the Mandate, and some settlements were established under the British administration. Such actions were fiercely opposed by the Arabs, and in 1921 the first of many Arab pogroms killed forty Jews in the coastal city of Jaffa, followed in 1929 by riots in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed in which Arabs killed and injured over 500 Jews and drove out the Hebron survivors. From 1936-1939, hundreds more were killed under the leadership of Yasser Arafat's uncle, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who met with Hitler in Germany during WWII to plan for extension of the Final Solution for the Jews of Palestine. The Arabs tried for that Solution when they rejected partition of Palestine into two states in 1948 and made war on Israel. When Jordan captured the West Bank in that war, it prohibited Jews from settlement in that area, as they had earlier been banned from Jordan itself. It was not until 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, that Jews were free to settle in the areas intended for them to settle by the Mandate policy.
It is not the settlements in any particular area to which the Arabs object, but the very fact of Jewish presence in any part of what the Arabs identify as Arab land, which is the entirety of the Palestine Mandate, encompassing Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and Jordan. Thus, rather than having a two-state solution in 1948, the then-secretary of the Arab League stated: "this will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades." This is still the stated policy of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah; the PLO claims to have tempered its own goals to a two-state solution, though its rhetoric and incitement belies this assertion.
Having lost five wars and failing to exterminate and drive the Jews into the sea, some of the Arabs now assure us that they will be content with Arabs and Jews living side-by-side in their own states, but not together, at least not in the Arab state. The current fashionable view is that Arabs have the right to live anywhere in the old Palestine Mandate—Gaza, Israel, West Bank, Jordan—but Jews have only the disputed right to live in Israel proper, along with the nearly one million Arab citizens of Israel, who constitute almost 20 percent of the population. These Arabs live under Israeli law, protected by the police and the army, and do not fear each day for their lives at the hands of either the government or Jewish Israelis. But in the proposed Arab state, there is to be an ethnic cleansing in which all Jews will be expelled , and their neat suburban communities turned over to the Arab refugees who have been kept languishing by their Arab masters for these past 55 years in squalid camps. The Arab demand for elimination of any Jewish presence in areas claimed by Arab is a recognition by the Palestinian Authority that it lacks both the means and the will to ensure the safety of any Jews who would choose to live under Palestinian control in a future land agreement. But just as Arabs live peacefully in Israel under Israeli law, so should Jews be able to live in the suburban communities they have established in the West Bank without the need for protection by the Israeli army. As was contemplated by the old League of Nations, Jews should be free to live in any part of the Mandate area; that they are not is a symptom of the problem’s intractable nature and the relatively primitive state of Arab political culture. Logically, this should lead to another enforced population exchange, wherein the Arabs of Israel are relocated to the West Bank as the Jews there are expelled to Israel. If ethnic cleansing is to be practiced, it should be equitably applied.
This would be, of course contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted right after WWII to prevent forced population transfers as was done in Eastern Europe before and during the war. That Convention is frequently, but erroneously, cited as proof that the Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank are “illegal,” but the Convention bans only forcible transfers or deportations from or into the occupied territories, not voluntary movement of persons into those areas as is the case with the settlements. The Convention was intended to ban ethnic cleansing, which is of course exactly what the Arabs intend to do in their new state. Further, since Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank areas in a defensive war in 1967 from countries who had illegally occupied the areas since 1948, the Convention does not even apply. It only addresses the situation where the areas in question were occupied from another nation with legitimate sovereignty over those areas, which is not the present case. There is no basis for calling the settlements illegal. But the legal niceties are irrelevant to the conventional wisdom, which plans to eventually force Israel to resettle its Gaza and West Bank population behind the Green Line, permitting the ethnic cleansing which the Convention was intended to prevent.
It is naïve to believe that removing the settlements will bring peace, since in the Arab view, all of Israel is a series of settlements on Arab land. Israel is viewed as a Crusader kingdom, which like the first, may last 200 years, but is eventually fated to fall under Arab domination, if not from armed invasion, then from natural population demographics. The Arabs take the long view of history and are in no hurry.