By: Michelle Weinroth
In an opinion piece published in Canadian Jewish News (CJN) in July of 2015, journalist and academic Mira Sucharov asked: “Is it time to have a debate about the Jewish National Fund (JNF)?” To be clear, her editorial was couched in mild terms. This was no rant or acerbic attack on the JNF, for Sucharov adopts the posture of the journalist who, for the sake of “balance,” quotes both parties in a debate; she eschews taking sides. In this piece, however, the scales seem rather unstable, oscillating just a tad in favour of the anti-Zionist camp. Her central question “whether ethnic discrimination in land-lease policy befits a democracy” will certainly have troubled those in the Zionist tent. And her suggestion that there is a “kernel of legitimate criticism” in Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) campaigns coordinator Tyler Levitan’s condemnation of JNF’s coercive “displacement of Palestinians from their lands” must also have made heads turn. For her remarks come across as transgression of the unwritten law: “Thou shalt not criticize Israel, not even one little bit.” But Sucharov has emerged relatively unscathed. Israel’s apologists have not excoriated her, nor have they accused her of a thought crime, only of a conceptual error, of naïve misunderstanding.
Indeed, in a CJN OpEd of September of 2015, Alan Baker, legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, saw to it that she would be corrected in her views. His response was by no means hysterical, but it had the whiff of a patriarch purporting to offer the schoolgirl a lesson in legality and historical fact – except that what Mr. Baker offered Sucharov was a string of time-worn fallacies, thirteen to be exact, a baker’s dozen.
Here is Fallacy 1: In light of some serious misconceptions in Mira Sucharov’s column … according to which the land on which the Jewish National Fund-administered Canada Park is located was illegally stolen from Palestinians in contravention of the Geneva Convention, the following points need to be made.
I read these remarks in amazement and promptly did a double take. Had I missed something in Sucharov’s column? Were these her actual claims? I quickly reached out for my computer mouse, clicked on the Ctrl Find command to search for words such as “illegally stolen,” “contravention,” and “Geneva Convention.” Not a trace…I slumped back in my chair with a sense of relief. I had not altogether lost my senses. The moon had not turned green. I was still on earth. I was reassured, but also decidedly dismayed, to confirm that Sucharov had never written these words.
Re-reading her column, it became clear to me that Baker had put phrases in her text that were not there, and displaced her otherwise liberal position far beyond her middle-of-the road stance. Anyone reading Baker’s opinion piece would conclude, short of first reading Sucharov’s own editorial, that she was an unabashed anti-Zionist – a false impression, indeed, and the first, but scarcely the least, of Baker’s fallacies.
Here is Fallacy 2. And now things get more serious.
Referring to the origins of Canada Park, a part of occupied Palestine situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and known as the Latrun salient, on which three Palestinian villages once stood before being blasted into rubble in 1967, Baker states:
The land, including the former Arab villages that existed in what is now Canada Park, was never part of any Palestinian state or entity. No such entity has ever existed, and hence the land could not have been ‘stolen’ from a non-existent entity that neither owned nor occupied it.
Language is an extraordinary human device; it can erase and thus conceal the stuff of lived realities. And Baker’s legalese and political abstractions are a case in point. With the proverbial stroke of a pen, he instantly obscures the outrages of the past, sweeping aside a blatant war crime: the expulsion of roughly 10,000 Palestinians from the villages of Beit Nuba, Yalo, and Imwas on June 6th and 7th, 1967. Dressing his case with the trappings of legalistic verbiage – see his references to “state,” “entity,” and “non-existent entity” –, he distracts the reader with irrelevant concepts so as to occlude the central subject: i.e., the fate of Palestinians – real human beings, wrought of flesh and blood, like you and me – who lived in the Latrun salient in the 20th century, and whose ancestors resided there centuries before the Ottoman Empire ever took shape. These people constituted what Israel has long coveted but never actually possessed in the Latrun: legitimate human facts on the ground. Still, desirous of this fertile territory, and heedless of human obstacles, Israel’s military elite, after repeated but failed attempts between 1948 and 1967, resorted to violent human transfer under the veil of a six-day war. By contrast, generations of Palestinian villagers, who had tilled the land, cared for it, and nourished it, were the veritable owners of this territory. They had developed a civic society, an agricultural science, and a collective identity as coherent and integrated as any administrative body to which we might assign the label “state.” State or no state, these villagers were the legitimate occupants of that land and their forcible eviction from it was not only an act of theft, but a violation of international law.
Baker’s claim that “No such entity has ever existed, and hence the land could not have been ‘stolen’ from a non-existent entity that neither owned nor occupied it” is thus a piece of sophistry resting on a conflation of state and people. With fancy rhetorical footwork, Baker seeks to sidestep the egregious atrocity committed by Israeli military forces in 1967. But the flagrant nature of the crime cannot be eschewed however dressed in legalese. Baker’s twisted logic backfires as he seeks to expunge historical fact from social memory. For by expelling the ‘inconvenient’ truth from his ‘rationale,’ his discourse mirrors the violent expulsion of 10,000 innocent villagers – those ‘inconvenient’ facts on the ground of the Latrun salient.
In the 1990s, Edward Said wrote: “Almost five million Palestinians constitute a nation. Like the members of other nations, they expect not to be killed and punished because they do not now have a state to defend, repatriate or enfranchise them.” Indeed, they do not expect to have their villages and land, which they have occupied for centuries, seized and stolen by brutal force.
To be clear, that there was no Palestinian state in 1967 does not signify that there was no inhabited land, no Arab ownership of land, no human cultivation of ground, and this for countless generations. The expulsion of villagers from the Latrun salient constituted an unconscionable act of ethnic cleansing. Baker’s legalese cannot obviate this appalling and undeniable reality.
But being the lawyer that he is, he persists in his attempt to square the circle. He resorts to a second sophistic claim, arguing, and here comes Fallacy 3, that not only was there no state, but the Latrun area, including where Canada Park now stands, was a “No-man’s land.”
Fallacy 3: In the 1949 Jordan-Israel armistice agreement, which terminated the hostilities but left the issue of “territorial settlements or boundary lines” open for future peace negotiations, the Latrun area, including what is now Canada Park, was determined as “No-Man’s Land” and a demilitarized zone between the forward lines of the forces, with strict limitations on any military presence or activity therein, and remained so until the 1967 Six-Day War.
Here Baker counts on our ignorance of the 1967 Israel-Palestine cartography to make his case. Trusting that few of us will go scrambling to the appropriate historical map to verify his claims, he boldly asserts that the Latrun salient was a terra nullius. But a closer look shows that Baker’s legal argument is not only emptied of factual (read human) content, it is flawed. For the “No-Man’s land” to which he refers was a buffer zone outside the villages of the Latrun salient. The villages were thus within an area inhabited by men, women and children; it was scarcely virgin ground.[i]
Much apart from falsifying facts, Baker’s second sleight of hand produces an intractable contradiction. It justifies plunder while paradoxically denying it. By stating that the land was empty of human beings, Baker rests his argument: there was no one there to pillage! This colonial wishful thinking – the desire to wish away the presence of inhabitants – would simply be risible if it were not materially horrendous. The desire to clear the area forcibly and turn it into a “clean” slate on which to inscribe exclusive Jewish identity and land ownership is ultimately a death wish writ large; for to construe the Latrun salient as a “No-Man’s land” [ii] is a not only to erase facts of history, facts on the ground, it is to trace a blueprint for genocide.
One can only conclude that for Baker, and those who support his claims, Palestinian life is irrelevant, mere waste, worthy only of disposal. For that is exactly the treatment that the Latrun villagers of 1967 received on June 6th and 7th when the Israeli army under Yitzhak Rabin’s command swept them aside like detritus hurled into someone else’s backyard – Ramallah, Jordan, and other neighbouring parts. Once the space had been cleared of people, the demolition of Palestinian homes followed suit. All that was left to do, for those in charge, was to sweep away the rubble and residues of human life for the eventual development of Canada Park.
Fallacy 4: During the 1948-49 War of Independence, in which, as is widely known, Israel defended itself from a combined attack by neighbouring and local Arab forces…
Common knowledge is often the result of hearsay or propagated myth. Such is the origin of Baker’s claim that the Haganah was defending itself against the ‘combined attack by neighbouring and local Arab forces.’ Historians such as Simha Flapan have meticulously deconstructed this narrative, showing that the Arab states “were not in fact unified, but quite divided on whether or how to engage in military action. They avoided serious debate on adopting military measures. The UN Partition Plan came as a great shock to Arabs, but they were convinced that it would ultimately be revoked. The Jewish leadership was not preoccupied with the possibility of an Arab military option. The internal situation of most Arab countries made an Arab offensive strategically unwise and unlikely” (Flapan).
But Baker’s formulation only trumpets the age-old refrain that Jewish forces were the beleaguered party, assaulted by a host of adversaries. True to a pro-Zionist line, he plays the card of Jewish victimhood to win sympathy through the language of pathos.
Fallacy 5: …the area in question (the Latrun salient), including the villages that were located there, together with units of the Jordanian army, played an active and strategic role in blocking the route to Jerusalem and in attacking and bombarding both Jerusalem itself and convoys driving to and from Jerusalem.
If the pathos of victimhood is a hallmark of Hasbara discourse, its complement is the rhetoric of terror: the alleged violence of the adversary. In understated but unequivocal fashion, Baker portrays the Arabs as the attacking enemy, devoid of any right to self-defense, and the Zionists as innocent recipients of assaults. To be sure, the Zionist forces suffered major defeats in 1948; the Arab Legion had defended the Latrun tenaciously as well as the Old City of Jerusalem. But Baker fails to note that the Zionists’ aborted attempts at securing the Latrun scarred the collective memory of Israel’s military, and that these defeats would whet the appetite for revenge. In 1967, with the imminence of war came the opportunity for a riposte. And this retaliation (notably against Palestinian villagers) occurred despite evidence “asserted in the aftermath of the Six-Day War by the then Israeli Minister of Health, Israel Barzilai, that between 1948 and 1967 the Nachshon kibbutz on the Israeli side of the Green Line generally had ‘good neighbourly relations with the residents of the Latroun villages, and that there was good behavior on their part.’” (Al Haq Report)
Depicting the Latrun salient as the source of military insecurity – a blocked passage between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – , Israel’s public relations strategy was thus to sound the alarm. With trumped-up charges, the military terrorized 10, 000 people into flight and prevented their return home. Baker’s legalese not only evacuates these facts, but blots out the question of Arab security, the fate of thousands of villagers. Out of sight, out of mind, out of conscience. The weapons of language echo the weapons of war.
Fallacy 6: following 1948, territorial settlements or boundary lines were open for future peace negotiations.
If territorial settlements were indeed open for future peace negotiations, this should scarcely imply that the area was open for forcible seizure – for expansionist and vindictive purposes, as was the case in June 1967. The expression “peace negotiations” acts as another one of those linguistic tactics that preserves a highly disabling myth, notably that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a tension between two equal parties. No such parity ever existed. No such parity exists today. The relationship between Israel and Palestine is a colonial one: a relation of oppressor and oppressed in which the idea of a “peace negotiation” has no place. One negotiates with one’s equal counterpart, not with one’s besieged subordinate. To speak of “future peace negotiations” is to actively conceal the veritable scenario of an asymmetrical relation of Israeli power over Palestine resistance.
Fallacies 7 and 8: During the course of the Six Day War, in which Jordan, despite Israeli pleas not to do so, attacked Israel, the area fell under Israel’s control and administration, together with the other West Bank areas of Judea and Samaria. In light of its strategic location commanding the main route to Jerusalem and the vital security implications involved, and in accordance with Israel’s rights pursuant to the rules of armed conflict, the area was declared by Israel to be a closed military area under strict military control, and the presence of the few civilians who remained after the majority had chosen to leave was prohibited.
On Fallacy 7: the area fell under Israel’s control and administration, together with the other West Bank areas of Judea and Samaria…
In keeping with his practice of erasing historical facts, Baker delineates the West Bank in function of an ahistorical Zionist nomenclature: e.g., Judea and Samaria. These are biblical names imported from a theological narrative, and superimposed on the Palestinian identity of the West Bank. The tacit logic is this: Zionists view themselves as the descendants of the biblical Jews who lived in the area 2000 years ago. Yet, this widespread myth has been convincingly debunked by Shlomo Sand who shows that there is no historical evidence of a Jewish exodus in 70AD, no diasporic phenomenon, and thus no justification for a return, or for reclaiming historic Palestine. “Most Zionist thinkers were aware of this. Yitzhak Ben Zvi, later president of Israel, and David Ben Gurion, its first prime minister, …stated on several occasions that the peasants of Palestine were the descendants of the inhabitants of ancient Judea.” [iii]
On Fallacy 8: in accordance with Israel’s rights pursuant to the rules of armed conflict, the area was declared by Israel to be a closed military area under strict military control, and the presence of the few civilians who remained after the majority had chosen to leave was prohibited.
Baker’s elliptical reference to the Palestinians who sought to remain in the Latrun (against military orders) and those who ‘chose’ to leave the area exhibits once more the pernicious character of a legalese that whitewashes Israel’s sordid displacement of innocent villagers on June 6th and 7th, 1967. Those Palestinians who were prohibited from returning, but came back in search of their homes, were shot in cold blood; aging persons unable to leave their homes in haste were buried under the rubble of houses toppling under explosive military fire. Those who fled did not do so ‘voluntarily’ but reluctantly, in great haste, and at gunpoint. Much apart from its transgression of Geneva conventions, the expulsion was not the product of security measures, but rather of a long awaited expansionist manoeuvre driven by military hubris. Moshe Dayan, the then minister of Defense, openly declared that the annexation of the Latrun, and with it the expulsion of Palestinian villagers, was conceived as collective punishment, and revenge for Israel’s failure to seize this fertile and strategic ground in 1948.
Fallacy 9: Any claims that Israel has annexed the area are without any basis.
Baker’s assertion that Israel has not annexed the Latrun flies in the face of the obvious fact that she had planned the annexation of the Latrun for 20 years, from the time of her failure to capture the salient in 1948 to days before the 1967 war. Baker gives the impression that two parties are awaiting a peace settlement and that in the interim the territory has not in effect been captured. But on that logic, Israel has no right to build a recreational park on territory that is still in dispute, and to forbid Palestinians from visiting the land of their ancestors. Try as he might, Baker can’t have it both ways.
Fallacy 10: This area, together with all other areas that fell under Israel’s control in 1967, are the subject of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation process pursuant to the 1993-95 Oslo accords signed by the Palestinian leadership and Israel, and endorsed and witnessed by the major powers and regional and international organizations. Therefore the legal status of the area – including the area in which Canada Park is located – is pending negotiation. It cannot be denominated as “Palestinian territory,” since the Palestinians themselves are committed to negotiating the permanent status of the area with Israel. It is therefore governed by the special regime agreed upon by the Palestinians and Israel under the Oslo accords.
Baker’s reference to peace negotiation reflects the disingenuous nature of his defense. The Oslo Peace Accord was a protection racket to ensure that Palestinian leaders would accept an egregiously unjust deal, but one intended to quell resistance. Baker’s 10th fallacy rests on the false assumption that Palestinians and Israelis form a symmetrical relation of two warring parties. No such symmetry exists. Israel is the obvious colonizer; she has expelled the indigenous population in countless villages throughout Palestine, including the Latrun Salient, only to offer the survivors an olive branch, should they accept their miserable fate without complaint. Such a peace deal is a sham, aimed at stifling dissent and any call for retributive justice.
Fallacy 11: In this framework, the Palestinians have agreed that Israel continues to maintain full territorial control and jurisdiction over “Area C,” in which Canada Park is located, subject to the outcome of the negotiations on permanent status of the territory. Negotiations will presumably cover the fate of the area in question. As such, any claim that Israel’s administration of Canada Park is in violation of the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention has no basis in fact or law, since the convention is not applicable.
Here, too, Baker omits historical facts. The administration of Canada Park rests on two of Israel’s significant violations of international law, violations that occurred in 1967, but remain unpunished.
- Article 53 of the 4th Geneva Convention states that
Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.
There was no necessity to actively raze the Latrun villages to the ground except to cleanse it of a population that stood in the way of Israel’s expansionist agenda. The devastation caused to these villages was not the collateral damage incurred by war, but the result of expulsion carried out with premeditated design.
- According to Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention:
Nevertheless, the Occupying Power may undertake total or partial evacuation of a given area if the security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand. Such evacuations may not involve the displacement of protected persons outside the bounds of the occupied territory except for when material reasons it is impossible to avoid such displacement. Persons thus evacuated shall be transferred back to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area in question have ceased. (emphasis added)
For 48 years now, the Latrun villagers and their descendants have been prevented from returning to their homes. This is a flagrant violation of the 4th Geneva Convention. Baker’s argumentation attempts, but fails, to circumvent this fact.
Fallacy 12: The area of Canada Park contains remnants of Jewish Hasmonean and Second Temple presence, including burial caves and ritual baths, as well as of Roman and Crusader antiquities from later periods. Clearly, once the negotiations on the permanent status of the areas are resumed, such historic considerations will be part and parcel of the respective claims of the parties.
Insofar as Baker sees the Latrun as part of a biblical heritage, and insofar as current Israeli policy persistently promotes the expansion of settlements and parks in the West Bank, future “negotiations” are not likely to resume anytime soon. Is it conceivable that Israel will tear down Canada Park so that the descendants of the Latrun villagers will be allowed to return to their original homes and restore the genuine historicity of their ancestral land? Baker’s reference to future negotiations is empty rhetoric. The current reality speaks to the impossibility of restoring the status of the land to its pre-1967 condition. Contrary to Baker’s claims, Israel has annexed that territory with no intention of returning it to its rightful owners. If this is not a violation of international law, it is indisputably an immoral act.
Fallacy 13: Maintaining the area as a park in which its natural and historic character, integrity and heritage are preserved and protected, falls squarely within the requirements of international humanitarian law and cannot in any way be described as a violation of the Geneva Convention.
While the maintenance of Canada Park does not, as such, constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention, the dark genesis of the park indubitably does. Moreover, the so-called green development of Canada Park represents a clear violation of the Latrun’s native ecology. See, for example, the cultivation of foreign species such as European pines, unsuited and detrimental to the indigenous environment, and introduced to obscure the native vegetation and the vestiges of a violated people. In the interest of exhibiting some semblance of Jewish rootedness in the Latrun, those responsible for the creation of Canada Park (the Jewish National Fund and its associates) have imposed a fictitious (biblical) narrative onto stolen Arab land, while burying true history – centuries of Palestinian life, culture, and horticulture – in the dust of oblivion.
Alan Baker’s arguments may seem convincing to those who yield unthinkingly before his legalese. But close scrutiny shows that his claims are threadbare, shot through with time-worn myths and logical contradictions. If he is to pose as a patriarchal figure of wisdom and knowledge before Ms. Sucharov, he might do well to 1. avoid putting words in her text that were never there in the first place; and 2. refrain from using the tools of his Zionist cohort – denial of truth, displacement of guilt, and distortion of fact.
[i] But if, for one brief second, we were to admit that the Latrun area, including what is now Canada Park, was in fact a No-Man’s land, “with strict limitations on any military presence or any activity therein,” then the Israeli assault and forcible annexation of this territory on day one of the Six Day War was a contravention of what was later spelled out in UN Resolution 242: i.e., the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”
[ii] N.B. Note from Palestine Liberation Organization Negotiations Affairs Department, June 2013
“There are several areas of the West Bank that are referred to as ‘no man’s land’ (‘NML’). These are found around the area of the Latrun Salient and in Jerusalem. NML is not a specific term under international law. The designation does not mean that the land belongs to “no one”. The NML is part of the West Bank. The NML like the rest of the West Bank was occupied by Israel in 1967. Since it was acquired by force, Israel cannot have a valid legal claim to the territory itself. There is some indication that Israel recognizes that it does not have sovereignty over the NML. For example, in the case State of Israel v. Eytan Kramer (CF Beit Shemesh) 1193/04 (2005), the magistrate court of Beit Shemesh finds that Israel does not have sovereignty over the NML. This is recognition by an arm of the state that the NML is not part of Israel proper. Israel has tried to argue that NML is terra nullius — essentially making the claim that the NML was not under any sovereignty and up for grabs therefore Israel merely took possession of it after the 1967 war. This argument does not hold, most obviously because the land was inhabited by Palestinians. The village of Deir Ayyub and the Latrun monastery both are situated in the NML. The Israelis depopulated the village of Deir Ayyub in the 1948 war and the Franciscan monks of the Latrun monastery continue to live in and cultivate the area to this day.”