When a newspaper that formerly rejected pro-Palestinian Letters to the Editor appears to have changed its policy, submit one at your own risk. It may do the cause more harm than good.
My newspaper is the only one in a city of 94,000, and the main one serving a much larger metropolitan area. It's considered a good paper and has won numerous awards.
Until recently, however, it seemed never to publish letters that expressed unqualified, unapologetic support for the Palestinian cause. It ignored several of mine. To have a shot at publication, a writer begging for justice for the Palestinian people had to include some condemnation of their leaders or tactics, or some fawning praise of Israel.
Several weeks ago, to my surprise, the paper did publish an unabashedly pro-Palestinian letter. Seeing an apparent change in policy, I tried again, replying to a letter that defended Israeli settlements.
I'll refer to myself as Ms. W. here, and the writer to whom I was replying as Mr. X. I wrote, in part:
"[Mr. X.] states that Israeli settlements he visited recently in the West Bank and Gaza are legal because 'no Palestinian Arabs were ever displaced from these lands, which were desolate.' I'll assume for argument's sake that those specific tracts were indeed uninhabited.
"The settlements would still be illegal because the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically forbids an occupying power's settling its own people anywhere in occupied territories."
I also wrote:
"[Mr.X]...states that the settlements 'were built on ancient Jewish ancestral lands of the Bible...'
"The Bible is a respected sacred text, but it has no standing under international law. Jews have no more automatic right to live in a region their ancestors left, in most cases more than 1,000 years ago, than I have to live in either of the European countries my ancestors left in the 19th century. If you emigrate from a land, your descendants lose the right to live there, except when emigration in the modern era is due to refugees' fleeing a war."
I was prepared for hostile replies. I was not prepared for a man I'll call Mr. Y. to write smugly:
"Many critics of Israel base their claim that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal on a misinterpretation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In her letter of Oct. 13, [Ms. W.] repeats this common mistake...
"Article 49, the specific part of the Fourth Geneva Convention cited for this proposition, states, in full: 'Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.'
"Since no Israeli settler has ever been forced to live in the West Bank, a condition clearly required in Article 49, it is simply wrong to claim that Israeli settlements are illegal on this basis."
Are some readers already screaming "Foul"?
I sent off a reply that same morning, saying in part:
"[Mr. Y.] is not quoting Article 49 in full. He cites only the first of its six paragraphs, a portion that deals with transfers out of occupied territories, not into them.
"The sixth paragraph states: 'The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.' Any transfer of Israeli settlers, however voluntary on their part, is therefore illegal."
Several days later another letter writer, Mr. Z, challenged me on a different point. He wrote:
"[Ms. W.]... states: 'If you emigrate from a land, your descendants lose the right to live there, except when emigration in the modern era is due to refugees' fleeing a war.'
"To limit this to the modern era is to defend the 'Palestinians' right of return,' but deny [that right to] descendants of ancient Jews, who did not leave their homeland voluntarily..."
Yes, that was my intent. Jews' claimed "right of return"--after thousands of years, to a land no longer inhabited by any of the peoples who routed their putative ancestors--is a topic on which there can be legitimate disagreement. Mr. Z. was reading me loud and clear. But instead of offering a rationale for their having such a right, he continued:
" 'Palestinian refugees' were refugees created by the Arab League, which warned them to leave their homes for a short time until the new state of Israel was defeated by Arab aggression."
Taking this in conjunction with the paean to Israel and condemnation of the Palestinians that followed, he was clearly saying Palestinian refugees have no right of return. And he was basing his argument in part on a myth that modern Israeli historians have disproven.
I replied to his letter as well, writing in part:
"Under international law and customary practice, the roughly 800,000 Palestinians who became refugees in 1948, and their descendants, would have a right to return to their original homes even if it were true that they had fled on the advice of their fellow Arabs.
"But in fact, they did not. Israeli historian Benny Morris writes: 'I have found no evidence to show that the [Palestinian] AHC [Arab Higher Committee] issued blanket instructions, by radio or otherwise, to Palestine's Arabs to flee... There were a spate of appeals...by Transjordan, the AHC and various Arab leaders to the Arabs of Palestine to stay put, or if already in exile, to return to their homes... In most cases the final and decisive precipitant to flight was [Zionist/Israeli] attack or the inhabitants' fear of such attack.' "
The newspaper didn't publish either of my replies, or letters from anyone else making the same points. They did publish another pro-Palestinian writer's response to Mr. Y. But he didn't know the facts, and had to resort to the weak argument that Israeli settlements are contrary to the "spirit" of Article 49. AAAGGGHHH!
The outrageous misrepresentation of Article 49 is the most important issue here, an undeniable point of fact; so it's that on which I've concentrated. I wrote again:
"Whether or not you publish my letter [sent] Oct. 18, you must correct--on the Letters page--the extremely damaging factual error (or deliberate lie) in [Mr. Y.'s] letter... He argues that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not ban Israeli settlements, and claims to be quoting all of Article 49 when in fact he quotes only Paragraph 1. The basis for declaring the settlements illegal is Paragraph 6: 'The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.'
"You can easily check what I'm saying. Just google 'Fourth Geneva Convention.' "
By now I've written two further letters. The latest:
"You have an obligation to correct--on the Letters page, where the correction will be seen--the extremely damaging factual error in [Mr. Y.'s] letter of Oct. 18...
"In arguing that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not ban Israeli settlements, the writer claims to be quoting all of Article 49 while in fact quoting only Paragraph 1, which, by not mentioning a ban, appears to support the writer's position.
"The basis for declaring the settlements illegal is Paragraph 6: 'The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.'
"Anyone can check what I'm saying: just access 'Fourth Geneva Convention' with a search engine. The first five paragraphs of the Article deal with treatment of the inhabitants of occupied territories; only Paragraph 6 refers to the Occupying Power's civilian population.
"This is not a question of interpretation, or of differing opinions on what weight to give aspects of an issue. Citing one paragraph and wrongly claiming it constitutes the entire Article is an indisputable factual error concerning the content of a legal document. Given the importance of the issue, this error cannot be allowed to go uncorrected.
"This is the fourth letter I've written to ask you to make this correction; the first was sent on the morning [Mr.Y.'s] letter appeared in print."
Still no response --though in today's paper, they published a correction of an error in an Oct. 24 letter on a local topic. My next step, if I have to take it, will be to write directly to the Managing Editor. And include the entire text of Article 49, in case he's too lazy to look it up!
Wish me luck.
Later Note: Read on (sigh).