By Joharah Baker
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently gave the go-ahead for the construction of 750 new housing units in the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev. The settlement, already monstrous, lies eight kilometers northwest of Jerusalem and is built mostly on lands from neighboring Palestinian villages and is home to approximately 11,000 Jewish settlers. Givat Zeev is also one of the three major settlement blocs Israel says it intends to retain in any final peace settlement.
The Palestinians have protested the announcement, saying it contradicts with Israel’s commitments to the roadmap and the Annapolis conference agreement, which stipulates that it will freeze construction in settlements. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has charged Israel with “putting a stick in the wheel of the negotiations” while former premier Ahmad Qurei protested the move with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, expressing “shock and dismay”.
The issue here is, first and foremost that of Israel’s illegal settlements. Under international law, not only should Israel refrain from expanding settlements, they should never have constructed them in the first place. However, equally as important is the premise on which Israel so audaciously carries out this policy, which is its notion of “Greater Jerusalem”. Absurd as this notion is to everyone except the Israelis, they have still managed to convince much of the world that it is a valid premise and one which it has a God-given right to.
Jerusalem, as everyone knows, is one of, if not the, stickiest and most complicated issues on the final status negotiations list. Claimed by both peoples as their capital, Jerusalem has been ravaged by years of conflict, siege and economic blockade. In addition to the Israeli policy of sealing off Jerusalem to the West Bank, it has systematically continued on its age-old policy of creating “settlement rings” around the city in order to ensure the demographics of Jerusalem are always in favor of the Jews.
A quick recap of Israeli terminology on Jerusalem is necessary to fully grasp the reason why Israel is so arrogant in its attitude towards settlement building there. While the western sector of the city was captured by Israel in the 1948 War, the eastern side was occupied along with the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. The only difference is that Israel unilaterally annexed this section of the city, overwhelmingly inhabited by Palestinians, declaring it the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel. In 1980, the Jerusalem Law was passed in the Knesset, which reiterated Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but failed to designate its borders. The international community, including the United States has yet to formally recognize Israel’s unilateral annexation of the city.
Almost in tandem with Israel’s “legalization” of its annexation of Jerusalem, the government coined a new phrase, that of Greater Jerusalem. Roughly speaking, Greater or Metropolitan Jerusalem includes only 30 percent of lands within pre-1967 borders. The rest is internationally recognized as occupied territory although the United States has unofficially endorsed Israel’s plans for Jerusalem for decades.
Part of this plan, aimed at expanding the borders of Jerusalem as much as possible into West Bank territory has been Israel’s unrelenting settlement processes in and around Jerusalem. Currently there are a quarter of a million Jewish settlers living in Jerusalem settlements. While all of these settlements are deemed illegal under international law given that they are built on occupied territory, Israel has twisted and turned its terminology and has come out victorious by labeling these colonies as “neighborhoods” and “areas” of Jerusalem. When the question of these settlements, which of course are mainly built on land confiscated from Palestinians, arises, Israel cockily responds that east Jerusalem “areas” are not part of the deal. While Olmert insists he is standing by his commitment not to expand existing West Bank settlements, he is adamant that the constraint does not apply to those with Jerusalem’s “boundaries.” Never mind these borders continue to expand at Israel’s whim.
This is only half the problem. If it were not for the moral and financial backing Israel receives mostly from the United States, Israel’s settlement enterprise would have gone under years ago. This would especially be true if Israel’s illegal annexation of east Jerusalem had been followed up with some kind of action from the international community signifying that all countries – especially those that claim to be free and democratic – abide by the international laws that govern them.
The fact remains that this has not happened and most likely will not anytime in the near future if the past is any indication of things to come. Israel has secured its spot as the US’s most coddled baby and has even wiggled its way into the international arena as a tiny country facing major hostility.
This attitude has manifested itself in the international community’s nonchalance vis-à-vis settlement building in Jerusalem. While the United States occasionally delivers the proverbial slap on the wrist to Israel for disobeying it, there are no real consequences for the latter’s actions. Plus, as long as Israel claims the settlements are within Jerusalem’s “borders” (the unilaterally designated Jerusalem municipality borders continue to be expanded to absorb the Greater Jerusalem vision) they have allowed themselves a legal pretext under which to operate. Meanwhile, Israel continues to dig deeper and deeper into West Bank territory.
The Givat Zeev settlement is one of the three blocs Israel has incorporated into its Greater Jerusalem plan. The others include Gosh Etzion and the Maaleh Adumim bloc, which is part of the E1 plan aimed at linking this settlement – the largest in the West Bank – to other east Jerusalem settlements such as Pisgat Zeev and French Hill by bypassing Palestinian territories altogether. This bloc, by far the most encroaching of all east Jerusalem settlements sprawls across 22,000 dunams of expropriated Palestinian land. Upon completion, the E1 plan would have expanded this area by 50 percent.
So, while settlements are the immediate issue here, Israel’s self-granted authority to expand and expropriate according to its interests is an equally important and underlying issue. That is why Jerusalem needs to be addressed now rather than later. Israel is obviously trying to create as many facts on the ground in Jerusalem before it is on the negotiating table in the context of a final agreement. It should not be allowed to expand the borders of a city it alone acknowledges as its undivided and eternal capital while the world watches on with indifference and more Palestinian land is snatched.
Since 1948, Israeli authorities have managed to squeeze out tens of thousands of Palestinians from their home in the holy city through a multitude of policies – land expropriation, expulsion, ID confiscation and the separation wall. If these already gigantic settlements, in this instance Givat Zeev, continue to grow, there might not be much left to negotiate once Jerusalem is finally on the table.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.