By George S. Hishmeh – Washington, D.C.
As Palestinians and Israelis took their first step in the much-delayed peace negotiations, there is strong evidence emerging that the hawkish government of Benjamin Netanyahu is about to break its promise to hold off on its illegal expansionist plans in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The anti-colonialist Israeli watchdog group, Peace Now, revealed that Israeli settlers have begun work on a 14-unit apartment building in an abandoned police station in Ras al-Amoud, an Arab neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem. The Palestinians immediately viewed the project as a violation of the terms of the so-called proximity talks, which began last week just before U.S. Middle East special envoy, George J. Mitchell, returned to Washington to prepare for the second session next week.
This is a serious crack in the relaunched U.S.-mediated talks in which Washington had warned both sides not to jeopardize the process. In a readout of a telephone exchange with Abbas last Monday, released by the White House, President Obama “confirmed his intention to hold both sides accountable for actions that undermine trust during the talks.”
Nevertheless, Israeli cabinet secretary, Zvi Hauser, had told Army Radio over the weekend that “building is expected to begin in Har Homa … and Neve Yaakov, where (construction) bids have been issued,” referring to the two Arab East Jerusalem neighborhoods. “Building in Jerusalem is continuing according to its regular pace.”
The expectations, according to earlier Israeli press reports attributed to a high-level Israeli official, have been that the Obama administration will not unveil mediation proposals or a Middle East peace plan before the start of direct, substantive talks between the two sides on final-status issues. In turn, the Israeli prime minister is said to insist that although the “core” issues – the status of Jerusalem, the borders and the rights of Palestinian refugees — will be discussed during this indirect phase he would not be making binding decisions on them.
As in the case of the refugees, they have been waiting for more than 60 years to return to their usurped homeland, ever since Israel had pledge to allow them to return when it became a U.N. member state. How much longer will they have to wait is now more dependant on American intervention as much as on Arab and Palestinian efforts.
Although the focus is generally on the Palestinians who took refuge in the neighboring Arab states, the condition of those who remained under Israeli control since 1967 is deplorable and understandably intolerable. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) has reported last Sunday that three out of every four Palestinian children living in occupied East Jerusalem live below the poverty line.
This Israeli rights group maintained in its report that “a unified Jerusalem does not exist,” in contradiction to official Israeli claims that the Holy City is now unified. “Over 95,000 children in East Jerusalem live in a perpetual state of poverty.” The annual budget allocation for an elementary school child in Arab East Jerusalem is $152 compared with around $627 in West Jerusalem.
ACRI added: “Israel’s policy for the past four decades has taken concrete form as discrimination in planning and construction, expropriation of land, and minimal investment in physical infrastructure and government and municipal services.” About 160,000 Palestinian residents have no suitable and legal connection to the water network, and 50 kilometers of main sewage lines are lacking.
Moreover, the hard-hitting report noted that Israel has expropriated more than one-third of Arab East Jerusalem land, which was once privately owned by Palestinians, on which it has built more than 50,000 homes for the Jewish population.
No wonder the Palestinians want out, now and not later. A prominent Palestinian peace activist, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, praised in a an interview with Foreign Policy magazine that the institution-building efforts initiated by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank. But, he stressed, the Palestinians do not want to give the wrong impression “that internal economic development means statehood,” underlining the point that the Palestinian govenment “is not allowed (by Israel) to function in 60 percent of the West Bank,” including Jerusalem. All this, he underlined, is not a “substitute for the need to end (the Israeli) occupation.”
Obama cannot afford to allow Israel to break its promise, one more time, such as it did when Vice President Joe Biden visited there recently.
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.