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The Human Right to Settle?

In a recent article in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, columnist Rafael Castro writes:

“We will not dwell on Jewish historical rights over Judea and Samaria. These have been elucidated elsewhere and are well-known to most readers. It is high-time to discuss the rights of Jews to reside in the West Bank in terms of human rights. Is this a joke?”

The author stresses the necessity of a paradigm shift in the Zionist conception of settling in Palestine and tries to highlight the central role that the utilisation of the human rights discourse could play in the legitimisation of the Israeli colonial project. The equation on which the new paradigm is constructed is that any settlement evacuation corresponds to an ethnic cleansing operation. Castro’s attacks are aimed both at a generic “intolerant Arab/Palestinian” and the NGO pacifists accused of political relativism:

“If Jews were once again denied the right to reside in England or Spain these pacifists would be appalled. At the same time these pacifists deny analogous rights to Jews who have for decades resided peacefully in West Bank towns like Efrat and Ariel.”

In spite of the irony that an historically corroborated and sophisticated practice of colonisation such as the Israeli one could be labelled as human rights enforcement – the “human right to the colony”, as I defined it in a recent article written with my colleague Kareem Rabie – Castro’s argument should be taken very seriously. It is perhaps the new frontier of the Israeli struggle on the colonial frontier.

During recent years, the transformation of the Israeli plans for dispossession into a claim for the human right to settle has already been developed by several Israeli non-governmental organisations adopting and appropriating the lexicon and legal techniques used by the NGOs that fight for Palestinian rights, both at a local colonial level (within the Israeli Supreme Court) and at an international one. Indeed, Castro’s claim is grounded in an already consolidated trend of practices.

Firstly, by attacking the whole system of the Israeli Supreme Court for “being biased and discriminatory against the Jewish citizens of Israel” and fighting against what they called – after the 2005 evacuation of the settlements from Gaza – the “expulsion of the Jews from their national lands”, by which they mean the rare demolition orders issued by the Court against the settlers. This is what they call “the perversion of justice”.After the so-called disengagement from Gaza in 2005, some organisations of the “settler civil society” like Regavim (The National Land Protection Trust) or the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel have increasingly tried to further obfuscate the legal struggles within the Israeli Supreme Court – an organ which is structurally complicit and biased, and has historically functioned as a legal weapon for normalising dispossession – by fundamentally doing two things.

Secondly, they appropriated the legal language used by the NGOs that defend the rights of the Palestinians not to be expelled and dispossessed from their lands, by completely inverting the settler colonial asymmetric setting, and by defining the Palestinian buildings in the West Bank as “outposts” and “illegal constructions”.

What might seem a complete inversion of the terms of the colonial field of forces – the coloniser depicted as victim of (which?) violations and the colonised as the perpetrators of (which?) violations – is precisely one of the new frontiers of Israel’s settler colonialism. It is true that, historically speaking, the claim for victimhood has constituted a central feature of the specific colonial tension of Palestine/Israel, but it is only recently that a mechanism of legal and moral mirroring has been devised under the guise of settler NGOs dedicated to the implementation of a colonial agenda through various operations of “mirroring”.

Not surprisingly, these techniques of mirroring have already produced results. Using the legal argument of “law enforcement” and equal application of the law, demolition orders were issued by the Israeli Supreme Court against Palestinian construction (in the West Bank, but also within the territory cleansed by Israel in 1948).

At a first glance, these dynamics may appear to be moral aberrations, human rights’ abuse and distortions of the reality on the ground. However, looking carefully (and politically, more than morally) at the contours of the “human right to settle”, we discover that organisations such as Regavim fight with the same techniques in the West Bank and in the Negev, asking the court for legal implementation of the expulsion of Palestinians from everywhere they live in the territory of historical Palestine.

Indeed, these organisations embody the historical linkage between – in this case, settler – nation-building (“from the river to the sea”) and human rights, a linkage in which the definition of what is human is accompanied by an exclusivist identitarian delimitation of the national body politic: the (in this case, settler) national citizen.

Perhaps a paradigm shift, a rupture with the last decades of advocacy and political activity based on lawfare is required even in the field of organisations and individuals who have focused their political struggles on respect of human rights. The horizon of human rights – like that of International Humanitarian Law – could not be sufficient alone to contain the language and practices necessary to achieve liberation from settler colonialism.

Nicola Perugini is an anthropologist who teaches at the Al Quds Bard Honors College in Jerusalem. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

A version of this article originally appeared on Al Jazeera

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Nicola Perugini teaches at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. He is the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.

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