It’s barely been a week since Matti Friedman’s expose on the media treatment of “the most important story on Earth,” and Huffington Post is already doing its gosh-darned best to prove him right. Here was HuffPo’s homepage yesterday morning.
The huge font and placement on the homepage indicates the importance that HuffPo attaches to this action (let’s not even get into the half-smiling picture of Netanyahu, the choice of which is telling in itself as he did not personally announce this). And HuffPo’s language, “mass land grab,” passes judgment before even reciting the facts.
It’s worth asking, first of all, whether the “mass” in “mass land grab” is at all accurate. The size of this “land grab” is only massive in comparison to previous similar actions. This is, as the author at Reuters tells us, the biggest such appropriation in 30 years. But how much land is actually involved? 988 acres. That’s about one and a half square miles, or four square kilometers, or about .07% of the total West Bank. “Mass” must be a pretty relative term to HuffPo’s editors.
The term “land grab” is obviously loaded. But the propriety of this action is certainly a far more nuanced issue than this inflammatory headline would have you believe. This particular 1.5 square mile area is a vacant area within Area C, the area under the Oslo accords in which Israel retains zoning authority. It is, moreover, inside an area that would remain under Israeli control in any peace agreement. Jonathan Tobin points out two reasons for this:
One is that it is just south of Jerusalem and requires no great manipulation of the map. It guards the southern flank of Israel’s capital and the area containing 22 Jewish communities with over 70,000 living there can be retained while leaving Bethlehem inside a putative Palestinian state.
But this land is also significant because, contrary to the narrative in which Jews are portrayed as “stealing” Arab land, Gush Etzion was actually populated and owned by Jews not only prior to 1967 but also prior to Israel’s War of Independence. Gush Etzion was a bloc of Jewish settlements that was overrun by Jordanian army units and local Palestinians after a bitterly contested siege. Its inhabitants were either massacred or taken prisoner and their homes and farms destroyed. As such, it was the first land to be reclaimed for Jewish settlement after the 1967 war put it back in Israeli hands.
No surprise, though, that none of these points made it into the Reuters piece on Huffington Post.
So, the land in question is one and a half square miles in an area that would remain in Israel under a (hypothetical) negotiated peace deal.
Of course, this is, unquestionably, still a government appropriation of land. But let’s put that into perspective. In the US, for example, government appropriation of land through eminent domain is quite common. Any New Yorker will remember the fight over the use of eminent domain to make way for the Barclays Center, now home to the Brooklyn Nets. Many Brooklynites were irate when residents were evicted from their homes, and opposition to the project was both vigorous and protracted. Ultimately, however, that appropriation was found to be fully legal, and next month, you can even catch Maccabi Tel Aviv playing the Nets at that very site.
Indeed, eminent domain is practiced for a variety of purposes throughout the US, and has been since the practice was enshrined in the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution. In fact, even the current headquarters of the New York Times (which, of course, also weighed in on this story) stands on property that was appropriated from unwilling owners through eminent domain.
Whether you agree or disagree with Israel’s decision in this matter, it ought to be clear to any unbiased observer that the level of disapprobation that it is generating, from the UN, to the US State Department, to the media, is, well, disproportionate.
Update, September 4: I stand corrected. Eugene Kontorovich tells us at Commentary that actually, this action does not even constitute an “appropriation” of land. He writes that, “a determination that land is ‘state land’ is a factual, administrative finding that does not change the ownership of land.” Good catch. Either way, I still maintain that it is no worse than kicking out someone whose family had owned land for over 100 years to make way for the privately-owned New York Times headquarters, as was done in New York.