The Professor’s Truth Demolition

Jeff Halper, a retired lecturer in anthropology at Israel’s Ben Gurion University, heads the so-called Israeli Committee against House Demolitions and is a persistent and harsh critic of Israel. A recent op-ed of Halper’s, “A Palestinian prison-state?” (Boston Globe, Apr. 11, 2005), was a repeat of some of his baseless anti-Israel charges. In particular, Halper alleged that:

After almost four decades of deliberate Israeli de-development of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the Palestinians are left today with scorched earth. No functioning economy (the Palestinians, 70 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day, are being kept alive by international relief agencies); no agriculture (since 1967 Israel has uprooted or cut down a million olive and fruit trees); no homes for the young generation (Israel has demolished 12,000 Palestinian homes since the occupation began, and refuses to issue permits to build new ones).

Is it true that under Israeli rule Palestinians had “no agriculture”? The facts say otherwise.

1. At constant currency value (measured in millions of New Israeli Shekels), the agricultural production of the West Bank increased from 163.1 in 1968 (the year just after the Six Day War) to 1087 in 1992 (the year just before Oslo), an increase of 566 percent! In the Gaza Strip, over the same period, the increase was 194 percent, not as large but still impressive. How can this be called “de-development,” when it is, in fact, rapid development? (figures compiled by the World Bank – which is not particularly friendly towards Israel – for their Developing the Occupied Territories, V4)

By way of comparison, according to statistics from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (Regional Economic Information System), over the period 1969 – 1992 cash receipts from marketings from US farms increased by just 245 percent. That is, over roughly the same period the increase in Palestinian farm production was more than double the increase in US farm production.

In other words, contrary to Halper’s false charge, Palestinian agriculture flourished under Israeli rule. The aggregate numbers show this, as do the numbers for various individual crops (see below).

2. Regarding olive trees specifically, the production in the West Bank (there aren’t very many olive trees in Gaza) in various years was as follows (Statistical Abstract, various years, Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics):

Year Olive production in 1000 tons
67/68 28
68/69 53.5
69/70 15
79/80 120
85/86 148
91/92 170

Because olives trees are rain fed, production is highly variable from year to year, but the trend of large increases in production is clear. Looking at the average production over the course of years makes this unmistakable:

Period Average Olive production in 1000 tons
67/68 to 77/78 44.5
78/79 to 88/89 67
89/90 to 92/93 81.4

That is, under Israeli rule average olive production increased by 83 percent! Obviously, when Halper used the terms “de-development” and “no agriculture” he was either lying or misinformed. Either way, he grossly misled Globe readers.

Halper’s claim that Israel has “uprooted a million olive or fruit trees” is also ridiculous, considering the huge increase in olive production.

And there were large increases with other crops as well, such as vegetables and potatoes: (Israel Central Bureau of Statistics):

Year Production of vegetables and potatoes in thousands of tons (West Bank)
67/68 60
68/69 65
69/70 87
73/74 138.5
77/78 156.3
80/81 159.5
81/82 182.3
87/88 199.4
88/89 197.7
89/90 215.5
90/91 186
91/92 208.3
92/93 235

The seasonal variations are much smaller than with olives since vegetables and potatoes rely on irrigation rather than rain. The huge growth in output – 292 percent – was largely due to advanced techniques such as drip irrigation which Israel invented and shared with Palestinian farmers.

Looking beyond agriculture, the Palestinian territories had one of the ten fastest growing economies during the 1970’s, just behind Saudi Arabia (which benefitted from the oil shock of 1973), and ahead of Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. (World Bank, ratio of real per capita GNP in 1980 to real per capita GNP in 1970)

There is no doubt that the Palestinian economy was harmed by the first intifada and the second intifada, but that is hardly the fault of Israel. Of course, the Israeli economy also suffered greatly as a result of the Palestinian turn to violence.

Halper’s other claims are just as false as his agricultural claims. For example, his allegation that there are “no homes for the young generation,” because Israel has “demolished 12,000 Palestinian homes and refuses to issue permits to build new ones,” is utter nonsense. First of all, since the Oslo process more than 95% of Palestinians live under Palestinian civil rule, thus they go to get building permits from the Palestinian Authority, not from Israel. Second, under Israeli rule Palestinians did get building permits, but with or without permits, Palestinian towns expanded tremendously.

To cite two examples of such growth, just south of Ariel is the West Bank Palestinian town of Salfit. According to a 1986 book written by an Israeli professor of geography, Salfit’s growth in this period was unmistakably large: “The total built-up area which was added to the town since 1972 has about doubled. It is now roughly equivalent to that of Ariel (as of mid-1985).” According to the same source, Kifl Harith, another Palestinian town “is growing in all directions.” (David Grossman, Jewish and Arab Settlements in the Tulkarm Sub-district, West Bank Data Base Project, Jerusalem, 1986, p25)

The same author, in an academic text published just before the Oslo process commenced, concluded that “The lack of planning in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has resulted in uncontrolled expansion of Arab villages and in irregular urban sprawl.” (Rural Process-Pattern Relationships, 1992, Praeger).

If, as Halper claims, Palestinians are not allowed to build and expand, how can there be “uncontrolled expansion” and “irregular urban sprawl”?

Even Palestinian officials contradict Halper’s claims, and admit that Palestinians can build, both with and without permits. For example, Khalil Tufakji, the leading Palestinian building and demography expert, and obviously no friend of Israel, stated on CNN that:

We can build inside Jerusalem, legal, illegal — rebuild a house, whatever, we can do. Maybe we lose ten houses, but in the end we build 40 more houses in East Jerusalem. (CNN, Sept. 19, 1998)

Halper also falsely claims that Israel “refuses to take in any refugees even though it expelled them in 1948.” First, the claim that Israel expelled Palestinians in 1948 has been thoroughly debunked by many respected historians, including Professor Efraim Karsh, Head of the Mediterranean Studies Program at King’s College, University of London (see for example Karsh’s book Fabricating Israeli History).

To cite some specifics, perhaps the largest group of Palestinian refugees came from Haifa, and far from being expelled, they left of their own accord despite pleas from the Jewish mayor of Haifa that they remain in their homes. As Professor Karsh has written:

In Haifa, one of the largest and most dramatic locales of the Palestinian exodus, not only had half the Arab community fled the city before the final battle was joined, but another 5,000 – 15,000 apparently left voluntarily during the fighting while the rest, some 15,000 – 25,000 souls, were ordered or bullied into leaving against their wishes, almost certainly on the instructions of the Arab Higher Committee. The crime was exclusively of Arab making. There was no Jewish grand design to force this departure, nor was there a psychological “blitz.” To the contrary, both the Haifa Jewish leadership and the Hagana went to great lengths to convince the Arabs to stay.( Commentary, July-August, 2000)

Even Benny Morris, one of the leading so called revisionist historians in Israel, has admitted this:

Under British mediation, the [Israeli leadership agreed to a ceasefire], offering what the British regarded as generous terms. But then, when faced with Moslem pressure, the largely Christian leadership got cold feet; a ceasefire meant surrender and implied readiness to live under Jewish rule. They would be open to charges of collaboration and treachery. So, to the astonishment of the British and the Jewish military and political leaders gathered on the afternoon of 22 April at the Haifa town hall, the Arab delegation announced that its community would evacuate the city.

The Jewish mayor, Shabtai Levy, and the British commander, Major-General Hugh Stockwell, pleaded with the Arabs to reconsider … but the Arabs were unmoved … (Morris, 1948 and After, p 20)

In other words, contrary to Halper’s false claims, the Arabs of Haifa chose to leave, for fear of what other Arabs would do to them if they stayed.

As for Israel not allowing refugees to return, Halper is again wrong. Israel made generous goodwill gestures regarding refugees right from the start. For example, during the Lausanne negotiations in 1949, Israel offered to take back 100,000 Palestinian refugees prior to any discussion of the refugee question. The Arab states, who had refused even to negotiate face-to-face with the Israelis, turned down the offer because it implicitly recognized Israel’s existence. (Nadav Safran, Israel: The Embattled Ally, Harvard University Press, p 336)

Despite this, on humanitarian grounds Israel has since the 1950’s allowed more than 50,000 refugees to return to Israel under a family reunification program, and between 1967 and 1993 allowed a further 75,000 to return to the West Bank or Gaza. Since the beginning of the Oslo process Israel has allowed another 90,000 Palestinians to gain residence in PA-controlled territory.

That is, contrary to Halper, Israel didn’t cause the refugee problem, and despite this, and again contrary to Halper, Israel has allowed significant numbers of Palestinian refugees to move to Israel and to the Palestinian territories.

Beyond the specific misrepresentations in Halper’s op-ed, it is also important to note that he is a fringe extremist who simply does not accept Israel’s right to exist.

For example, Halper justifies Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis. True, he tries to give himself cover with pro-forma criticism of terrorism in general, but his support for Palestinian terrorism is undeniable. Here are Halper’s own words: “The acts of terrorism most condemned by the US and other states are those of non-state actors, in which the legitimate resistance of oppressed peoples to their oppression gets tragically lumped with the loony and pointless terrorism of Bin Laden, Carlos and other ‘professional terrorists.'”

That is, attacks by Bin Laden and Carlos are bad, but not attacks by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, etc., which are the “legitimate resistance of oppressed peoples.”

And later in the same article: “The Palestinians’ need to resort to terrorism raises questions of fundamental fairness. One cannot expect a people to suffer oppression forever, to abrogate their own rights in favor of those of others.” So in Halper’s view Palestinian terror attacks are “fair.” (Both passages are from Halper’s 2002 article 9/11, Terrorism and the Middle East: The Way Out,”)

Beyond justifying Palestinian terror attacks, Halper also opposes the existence of Israel: “A Jewish state has proven politically, and in the end, morally, untenable.” (Halper’s presentation to the UN’s International Conference on Civil Society in Support of the Palestinian People, Sept. 5, 2003)

Halper supports Israel’s dissolution, and his fabrications are meant to delegitimize the country in service of that goal. While his op-eds are opinion rather than news articles, factual assertions in opinion pieces must meet the same standards of accuracy as factual assertions in news reports. See for example the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which states (emphasis added) that “Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context,” or the American Society of Newspaper Editors Statement of Principles, which asserts that “Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports.”

Considering Halper’s track record of material distortions, which seem directly tied to his fringe political views, responsible editors should be wary of giving him a platform that will likely be used to deceive readers.

[For futher information about Jeff Halper and for details about the funding of his organization ICAHD, see the website of NGO Monitor.]

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