Sonja Karkar: Israel’s Settlement Project

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Israel’s illegal settlement project and security policies are being pursued relentlessly and without interruption in the West Bank, despite the latest attempts to allow the Palestinian Authority (PA) to administer its own security arrangements as well as most civil Palestinian affairs.

The settlement project has devastatingly undermined the territorial basis for Palestinian self-governance established by the Oslo II accord of 1995 and gives Israel an excuse to intensify security which only adds to the unbearable day-to-day conditions endured by every Palestinian living under occupation.

The reality on the ground now is that the whole of the Palestinian West Bank is utterly fragmented: the Palestinians have been pushed into smaller and smaller sealed enclaves (about ten in all) while Jewish immigrants are being illegally settled on large tracts of Palestinian land which are then consolidated into even larger settlement blocs to allow for population growth – and all of them are connected to Israel by an exclusive by-pass road system.

These illegal settlements and the security that surrounds them divide and separate the Palestinian enclaves so that there is no contiguity between them. In this way, Israel can ensure that it controls Palestinian movement between the enclaves and also Palestinian access to the outside world.

Despite the seemingly amicable talks going on between Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Abbas, Israel is not countenancing in the slightest ending the occupation or dismantling and removing the settlements and the matrix of control. Over the past decade, some 102 “illegal outposts” have been authorized by Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz. A cabinet-approved report by Israeli lawyer Talia Sasson in March 2005, strongly recommending the dismantling of the illegal outposts, changed nothing. Even the “settlement freeze” requirement in the Quartet’s roadmap was blatantly ignored, and with every move, the international community accordingly adapted itself to accommodate Israel.

Consequently, Israel has not been reined in by the US and other Western governments for contravening international law and UN resolutions, and it therefore, has little reason to change its policies and practices. And now that the PA is in shambles – with Abbas in no position to negotiate anything of worth – Israel will simply be looking to consolidate its rule as it has always done.

Two-tiered and Separate

Moves to consolidate the settlement project will raise again the proposed Continuous Movement plan (already partially implemented) which establishes an Israeli-only existing road network for the illegal settlements in the West Bank while creating an inferior network for Palestinian use. Although opposed by the World Bank and others, Israel is likely to present a case for completing the road network project, particularly as Israel now wants to impose this as a two-state solution – one in name only for the Palestinians. Israel fully expects that the world will accept this in order to alleviate Palestinian suffering. But, it is Israel that will benefit. Not only will the road network project rid Israel of its demographic problem, but it will keep the settlements in place, thus adding more territory and precious water resources to Israel from the land it has stolen from the Palestinians.

So far, some 1,200 km of roads are nearly all reserved for Israelis with modern Israeli-only motorways spanning the valleys while Palestinians are forced to use circuitous roads and confining tunnels that, aside from the racial division, will further isolate Palestinian towns from each other. The worry is that the international community may well find this idea of a two-tiered existence for both peoples a pragmatic solution to what is the intractable problem of what to do with 4 million Palestinians, little realizing that the matrix of control that Israel has already established, undermines the viability of any Palestinian state.

The last thing that Israel wants is for the one-state solution to “come out of the shadows and begin to enter the mainstream. . .” as Alvaro de Soto, the former UN Under-Secretary-General suggested it would in his end of mission report in May this year.

Nor does Israel really want a two-state solution that would see it having to relinquish control of the West Bank’s best land and water resources to an autonomous Palestinian state. In the absence of any meaningful international pressure that would get Israel to withdraw absolutely, the best the Palestinians can hope for is Israel’s disengagement while remaining under Israel’s external control, much like it has done with Gaza. That is not the sovereign state a just solution demands.

Creating Realities on the Ground

Ever since Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) signed the Declaration of Principles (DOP) in 1993, Israel has done everything to create facts on the ground to ensure that the final status issues would be permanently compromised. Dramatic increases in illegal settlement activity occurred particularly between January 2003 and June 2006 when tens of thousands of housing tenders were issued by the Israeli Ministry of Construction and Housing for new housing units in the West Bank illegal settlements. Most of these have occurred in the governorates of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Salfit and Jerusalem.

On 10 January 2007, the Jerusalem Post reported that settlement activity had increased three times the natural growth rate in Israel during the previous year, citing Israel’s Interior Ministry figures of 5.8 percent growth compared to 1.4 percent in 2005.

A “revolving door” policy – referred to in a letter to the UN Secretary-General by Ambassador Mansour, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the UN in January this year – is constantly being used by Israel to relocate illegal settlers in the West Bank, whether removed from the Gaza Strip or from any other illegal outpost.

In December last year, Israel announced plans for a new illegal settlement in the Jordan Valley which will house 30 families that originally inhabited the illegal settlement of Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip prior to Israel’s unilateral disengagement. Whatever the case, all these illegal settlements have stripped the Palestinians of their cultivated lands as well as lands reserved for future expansion of their built-up areas. In other words, the demands of the incoming illegal settlers are always given priority over the needs of the resident Palestinians.

Securing Jerusalem

While the US opposed the E-1 plan restricting the expansion of Jerusalem eastwards towards the largest illegal settlement bloc Ma’ale Adumim, it did not stop Israel from issuing tenders in January this year to allow the building of an additional 44 housing units there.

Israel also wasted no time in linking the West Jerusalem neighbourhood of Malha with the settlements of Gilo, Beitar Illit and the Etzion bloc in the south of the city and has as well announced plans to build thousands of units in existing and new settlement communities in East Jerusalem. This will bring more than 50,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews into the area and force the Palestinians into a minority group in a city that has been up until now overwhelmingly Palestinian. Such a settlement belt along the southern boundary of Jerusalem, the expansion of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement and the illegal Apartheid Wall are all deliberately designed to prevent Palestinian population growth and development by cutting off and isolating East Jerusalem from the West Bank and severing the territorial contiguity between the northern and southern West Bank districts.

High Court and Wall Route

According to numerous rulings of Israel’s High Court, not only is Israel’s security paramount, but even the security of the illegal settlements is a legitimate consideration when planning the route of the Apartheid Wall. While the military establishment – which has the authority to put up the Wall in occupied territory, has to consider those factors equally with the human rights of the Palestinians, a recent decision has shown that the security of Israel and the settlements are, in fact, being given more weight than the detrimental effect this push for security has on the Palestinians.

In making the ruling, the Israeli High Court ignored the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice which had not only rejected Israel’s security justifications, but had declared the Wall illegal and said that it must come down. Regrettably, the Israeli High Court’s ruling normalised what is illegal in the first instance – the building and maintenance of settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

An expanding Settler State or a Palestinian State?

Certainly, any Palestinian state proposed today would not be the state envisaged by the architects of Oslo. Israel’s Wall, the settlements and the Israeli-only roads have made sure that any Palestinian state will be forever compromised by the Israeli colonial settlement enterprise.

That in itself would be reason enough for Israel to cite security concerns and keep its military presence in and around the settlements or at least give itself the right to enter and leave Palestinian territory at will. Israel would also continue to control the borders and airspace which will greatly affect the viability of the Palestinian state, and in particular, put the Palestinian economy and trade at the complete mercy of Israel.

The way Israel has set it all up now with settlements, restricted roads, military reserves and no-go zones on 93 percent of the Palestinian West Bank seems much more like a settler state where Palestinians will only have semi authority in the enclaves allotted to them than the sovereign Palestinian state everyone is talking about.

Should the Palestinians acquiesce to some semblance of a state on the fragments of land remaining in these latest talks, they would find themselves in an impossible situation – completely subject to Israel’s whims and utterly and indefinitely dependent on humanitarian aid from the international community. Already Israel has disconnected much of occupied Palestine from its agricultural base.

Farmers are being prevented from accessing their land while Israel controls the main aquifer water resource of the West Bank. No longer able to depend for their livelihood on their long-established agricultural industry, the Palestinians are being forced to buy Israeli goods and are not even able to purchase goods from the Arab states at more competitive prices.

Such conditions are disastrous beginnings for a nascent state, and even more disastrous, would be a pseudo-state locked within Israel’s illegally-acquired settlement heartland and perpetually vulnerable to Israel’s long-pursued claim to all of the land. There is every reason to believe that Israel will continue to push ahead with its illegal settlement project, belligerently or otherwise, since it has never adhered to international law, agreements and United Nations resolutions and has never been called to account.

Even as recently as last year, Olmert reneged on his pledge to withdraw most of the settlements, and instead, settlement building flourished. Tragically for the Palestinians, it will be Israel’s illegal settlement project that will become the permanent reality. Without a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and without full autonomy of all of the land and water resources within the pre-1967 borders, the Palestinian state currently being negotiated is hopelessly doomed.

-Sonja Karkar is director of Women for Palestine. She lives in Australia.

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