By Ron Taylor
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
One sure-fire way of scuttling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is for Israel to carry on with settlement construction in the Occupied Territories. In every attempt at a solution to the conflict, the freezing of the settlement programme has been seen as an essential condition to diplomacy and as a way of reassuring the Palestinians of Israel’s commitment to meaningful negotiations.
In 1979, at the first Camp David summit US President Jimmy Carter sought a 5-year freeze. Prime Minister Menachim Begin was only prepared to agree a 3-month halt, neglecting to say that the expansion of existing settlements would continue unhindered. By 1992, when the number of settlers had risen from 50,000 to 250,000, the then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin agreed on a freeze only to insist on an allowance for ‘natural growth’. The so-called final status talks foundered in 2000, one of the reasons being Israel’s inability or unwillingness to stop settlement building. The number of settlers had then risen to 400,000.
Now there are close to half a million, but is there anything different this time? It would seem that the answer is ‘no’ or perhaps a ‘maybe‘. On Nov 19th, a week before the Annapolis conference, Ehud Olmert announced a freeze on settlement construction in the occupied territories – a major Palestinian demand and a condition sought by a number of Arab countries before they would commit to attending.
But a little more than a week after Annapolis, the Israeli government announced that permission had been granted to build a further 307 housing units at the Har Homa development in illegally-annexed East Jerusalem. The huge and ugly Har Homa is built on land largely confiscated from Palestinian owners. The theft was completed in July 1998, just over a year after the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution calling for the immediate halt to construction at Har Homa. Only three countries voted against – the United States, Israel and the mighty Micronesia.
The US was alarmed enough for Condoleeza Rice to publicly seek clarification from the Israelis, amid fears that the announcement at such a delicate moment could undermine the peace initiative. The Israeli response came from a senior Israeli official, who didn’t seem to think it was a problem. He or she was quoted as saying “We don’t need US approval if we are doing something that we think, as a sovereign state, we should do.”
Then on Dec 19th Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily, revealed that Housing Minister Ze’ev Boim is to apply to the Israel Lands Administration for a permit to build a large new Jewish settlement near Atarot in East Jerusalem. The news came just a few months after a senior US State Department official had been told by “senior Israeli officials” that the government would not move ahead with the plan. An embarrassed Ehud Olmert had to distance himself from the decision and his spokesman, Mark Regev hastily announced that “Nothing has been decided and nothing has been authorised.” Boim later said he had changed his mind.
Next, Haartez revealed that the proposed 2008 budget for Boim’s Housing Ministry includes not only funds for the Har Homa expansion, but for a further 240 apartments in the Ma’aleh Adumin settlement.
Rafi Eitan, Minister for Jerusalem Affairs defended the inclusion of the Ma’aleh Adumin expansion by saying that it is “an integral part of Jerusalem in any peace accord.”
But the expansion of Har Homa, Ma’aleh Adumin and the confusion over Atarot may form only the tip of the iceberg. On Dec 11th, Brigadier -General Yoav Mordecai, head of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) Civil Administration in the West Bank, revealed that hundreds, if not thousands, of planned housing units in the occupied territories already have building permits and do not need any further government approval before construction can begin.
The response from the Palestinian side has been an understandable one. In a letter to the Quartet for
Mideast Peace, Sa’eb Erekat , chief Palestinian negotiator, wrote that “ Israel’s ever-expanding settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territory poses the biggest single threat to the establishment of an independent viable and contiguous Palestinian state, and therefore to a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” President Mahmoud Abbas told members of his Fatah Party “We can’t understand these settlement activities at a time we’re talking about final status negotiations.”
For the Palestinians and most world opinion the building of settlements on Palestinian land, including annexed East Jerusalem, is illegal and that by not making an unequivocal commitment to a verifiable freeze, Israel continues to flout international law. But it is not just international law that Israel defies. It is not even very keen on following its own laws.
In a report published in early December, the Israeli peace group Peace Now revealed that between 1997 and 2007 Brigadier-General Mordecai’s IDF Civil Administration had issued 3,449 demolition orders against illegally-built structures in settlements and settlement outposts. Of these orders only 107 were carried out – a mere 3%.Perhaps Mordecai has been too busy signing demolition orders for the destruction of Palestinian properties. A recent count showed that the IDF has, since 2000, demolished more than 7,500 Palestinian homes.
Of course, Olmert and his negotiating team find themselves in an awkward situation and need to keep the coalition together. But, for the large sections of Israeli opinion which see the settlement enterprise as an ideological imperative, any hint of a freeze smacks of surrender and heralds the end of the Zionist revolution. A recent Israeli security service evaluation has found that the extreme-right settler movement is almost certain to use severe violence if there are moves to evacuate settlements and outposts. The evaluation goes on to say, though, that the threat is not imminent as the extremists do not believe that Annapolis will succeed and that therefore the settlements are not in danger. They could well be correct if Olmert does not face up to these people and put a definite halt to the settlement programme.