The Mailbag: Settlements, Settlement Units, Settlers

Posted by Michael Getler on

The Dec. 23 broadcast of the PBS NewsHour included an almost seven-minute segment exploring the question of why the United States abstained from, rather than veto, a United Nation’s rebuke of Israel earlier in the day. That rebuke involved a 14-0 UN Security Council vote on a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The abstention was a break with decades of U.S. diplomacy on this issue.

NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff explored that question with Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser to President Obama for strategic communications. It was, I thought, a good interview. It is well worth watching or reading if you missed it.

But in the course of the interview, Rhodes’ grip on strategic communications failed him at two points when he talked about “thousands of new settlements are being constructed” and later on when he said, “…when people look back and they say, you saw tens of thousands of settlements being constructed…”

CAMERA Focuses

On Jan. 10, I got an email from the ever-vigilant, pro-Israel, Boston-based media watch organization known as CAMERA, for Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. It said, in part: “Ben Rhodes falsely claimed that Israel is constructing ‘tens of thousands’ of settlements in the West Bank. Zero settlements are under construction and there have been no new settlements in some two decades. The total number of settlements and illegal outposts combined, according to the anti-settlement watch group Peace Now, is 228. While Judy Woodruff did an overall professional job in this interview, she failed to challenge Rhodes on his completely inflated, false figure and to inform viewers that his figure was not even close. We urge PBS to broadcast a correction and post it online as well.”

I’ve asked the NewsHour about this and will post their response if and when I get one. For most people who have followed the seemingly never-ending Arab-Israeli dispute reasonably closely over the years, they will probably be aware that there are not tens of thousands or even thousands of Israeli settlements on the territories it occupied after the 1967 war. On the other hand, there are, in increasing numbers, several hundreds of thousands, of Israelis living within what are hundreds of settlements.

I contacted Rhodes and he responded quickly, saying in an email, “I assume I was referring to settlers/individual settlement units, rather than settlement blocs.” I asked what he meant by settlement units and he said he’d describe them as “housing, whereas settlements are generally used to refer to a cluster of houses (which can obviously take different forms—apartments, houses, etc).”

My Thoughts

So it seems clear to me that Rhodes misspoke when he talked about thousands and tens of thousands of settlements, but meaning what may be called settlement units or living quarters within established and official settlements. And it also seems to me that while this was a misstatement by a guest rather than the interviewer, it merits some kind of correcting or clarifying statement by the NewsHour on the air or online or both. I have some sympathy for both guest and interviewer on this because when one thinks about this issue, it is easy to slip in a live interview from settlements to settlers, and the focus usually is on the numbers of Israelis now living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Nevertheless, this is always a hot-button issue and worthy of keeping straight.

Power’s Thoughts

In her speech to the UN explaining the American abstention on Dec. 23, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said this:

“The settlement problem has gotten so much worse that it is now putting at risk the very viability of that two-state solution. The number of settlers in the roughly 150 authorized Israeli settlements east of the 1967 lines has increased dramatically. Since the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords – which launched efforts that made a comprehensive and lasting peace possible – the number of settlers has increased by 355,000. The total settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem now exceeds 590,000. Nearly 90,000 settlers are living east of the separation barrier that was created by Israel itself. And just since July 2016 – when the Middle East Quartet issued a report highlighting international concern about a systematic process of land seizures, settlement expansions, and legalizations – Israel has advanced plans for more than 2,600 new settlement units.”

According to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights center, there are 124 official settlements in the West Bank and another 100 unofficial “outposts” and there are 14 official settlements in East Jerusalem.

Posted on Jan. 13, 2017 at 4:29 p.m.

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