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What’s Makes an Outpost Illegal?

For years, Israel’s critics have been railing against the construction of illegal outposts by Jews in the West Bank. The hilltop enclaves are erected without government permits and are therefore illegal, but the settlers have often been able to win delays from sympathetic politicians or to otherwise tie up their status in court. This is seen as a failure of the rule of law in Israel but the Palestinians have apparently been taking notes from the settlers’ tactics. Today a group of Palestinians erected a tent city in the controversial E1 area just outside Jerusalem protesting plans to incorporate the area into the city and the Jewish state. Police told them they would eventually be evicted, but those involved say they are on Arab-owned land and intend to stay until their camp is incorporated into a independent Palestinian state rather than Israel.

This is an effective tactic, but at the heart of their stunt is a concept that doesn’t necessarily work in favor of their cause. If, as their sympathizers will argue, Palestinians have the right to live and/or build on Arab-owned land anywhere in the country, then why shouldn’t Jews, who want to do the same thing, have that same right? In other words, is an outpost only truly illegal, not because of the lack of government building permits, but because the residents of the tent are Jewish rather than Arab?

According to those Palestinians interviewed by the New York Times, there is a distinction between their outpost and Jewish ones. It is that they think that only they have a right to live there and that Jews are foreign invaders. But the area involved is one in which both peoples have claims. Those of the Jews are backed by the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine as well as by history. Moreover, Israeli settlements are almost all on land that is not owned by individual Arabs. The point is, if the Arab tent city in E1 can be justified, so, too, most Jewish hilltop settlements as well as others that have been built with permission.

Those who oppose the Jewish presence in the West Bank or parts of Jerusalem often argue that incorporating these areas makes a two-state solution to the conflict impossible or undermine Israel’s future as a Jewish state. But the E1 area is not some remote hilltop outpost deep in the West Bank that would likely be given up in the event of a peace accord. It is a close Jerusalem suburb that would be incorporated into Israel in any treaty under the concept of land swaps that even President Obama supports. Should the Palestinians ever decide to make peace and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state next door, having the E1 area under Israeli control won’t prevent them from creating an independent nation next to it. 

While Israel’s critics complain about Jews building in the West Bank and Jerusalem, the Palestinians are building there all the time. But by choosing to seize an area that is in between two large Jewish areas, they are, in fact, the ones complicating any possible two-state scheme. Their true goal is not really to create a new Arab town but to ultimately evict Jews from their homes in Maale Adumim next door.

The notion that Arabs can live anywhere in the West Bank or Jerusalem but that Jews may not is a recipe for unending conflict, not peace. Peace will only come when Palestinians reconcile themselves to the existence of Israel. But such a peace isn’t likely to last if a Palestinian state remains off limits to Jews.