A long exposé last month in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad has revealed that the government of the Netherlands has deliberately violated Dutch law to pay higher pensions to Dutch settlers in the West Bank. According to a summary of the story by Tariq Shadid, these payments include pensions and income support and also cover related taxes, leading to the extraordinary result that “it apparently pays off even more to be a Dutch Jewish settler [in the West Bank], than to be an average Dutch citizen living in the Netherlands.”
As Hanine Hassan explains, “In 2002, a new law was put in motion to decrease state pensions for all Dutch citizens living in countries that have no social security agreement with the Netherlands. Israel has one, however: The Netherlands cannot make payments to its citizens living in territories occupied by Israel after 1967.” Successive Dutch governments nevertheless exempted Jewish colonists in the West Bank from the payment reductions, unlike, for instance, Dutch Moroccans living in occupied Western Sahara.
The Dutch case is especially egregious because of the preferential treatment granted to settlers in Palestine over other Dutch citizens. But even if the Dutch paid the same amounts to all its citizens living abroad, these funds would still be contributing to a colonial regime of inequality in the West Bank. This raises a bigger question: in what ways are states other than Israel directly supporting settlers and thereby sponsoring colonization? Much has been written about bilateral aid, especially the billions of dollars from Washington that provide arms to Israel; there is also a substantial literature on how the aid industry to Palestinians acts as an effective subsidy to the occupation. But the extent of assistance to settlers themselves is less explored.
There are no readily available statistics on dual nationals in the settlements. Some 13% of the Israeli Jewish population lives in the settlements and according to one estimate, upwards of one million Israelis hold a second passport, roughly half from Europe. This suggests a substantial number of people, at least in the tens of thousands. This dual-national colonial population must enjoy various forms of extraterritorial assistance from other governments: pension payments, tax benefits, health insurance reimbursements, and so on. For instance, one study places the number of Americans alone in the West Bank at 60,000, not including East Jerusalem. And U.S. citizens living abroad enjoy a tax exemption on their first $100,000 in income earned overseas. The value of such tax exemptions could easily be in the hundreds of millions or more.
Aid to settlers could arguably violate international law. When it declared the West Bank Wall to be unlawful, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held that other countries are “under an obligation not to render aid or assistance” (¶159) to such violations. While the ICJ was referring specifically in that paragraph to “the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the logic applies equally to the settlements, which the Court also found to breach the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention (¶120). The obligation on other countries to not aid or assist settlements is partly grounded in the first article of the Geneva Conventions, which requires states to not only respect but to “ensure respect” for their provisions. The scope of this obligation, however, is unclear: two of the ICJ judges wrote separately to criticize this very aspect of the opinion. To be sure, it is unclear if such payments to settlers would meet the level of causation required to trigger such a legal obligation on states. Moreover, settlers would also argue that their own rights to such payments supersede this obligation — as Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon show in a recent book, settlers are adept at adopting rights language for their own purposes.
Aside from the legal questions, the scandal of the Dutch settler payments is a reminder that the colonization of Palestine — and the resultant Nakba — has always been a multinational endeavour. When the Ottomans ruled Palestine, Zionists from European countries were shielded from many local laws by their home governments (the notorious “capitulations” regime that was a major source of anti-colonial resentment). The fact that Zionism was not directed by a single mother country has often been cited as a reason not to use the word “colonialism” in this situation. Whatever the merits of that argument, the Zionist movement has in many ways benefited from the ability to tap resources and build alliances within different Western countries without being totally dependent on any one of them. If Israel lacks a mother country, it is an orphan with many benefactors.