Those who hoped that Barack Obama would be arriving in Israel to bang Israeli and Palestinian heads together, after four years of impasse in the peace process, will be sorely disappointed. At the weekend, Arab-American leaders revealed that Obama had made it clear he would not present a peace plan, because Israel has indicated it is not interested in an agreement with the Palestinians.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has done little to capitalise on his recent diplomatic success at the UN. So instead, it was left to a group of 250 ordinary Palestinians to show how the idea of a “state of Palestine” might be given practical meaning. On Friday, they set up a tent encampment that they intended to convert into a new Palestinian village called Bab al-Shams, or Gate of the Sun.
Is Israel preparing to annex Area C, as a growing number of analysts have recently been speculating? This week, on a visit to the Israel’s tourism bureau in Nazareth, I came across an official brochure, “Your Next Vacation: Israel”, that suggests the answer. The brochure is supplied to travel agents around the world as well as to hundreds of thousands of tourists who arrive in Israel each year.
The recently published report by an Israeli judge concluding that Israel is not in fact occupying the Palestinian territories – despite a well-established international consensus to the contrary – has provoked mostly incredulity or mirth in Israel and abroad. Even Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, seemed a little discomfited by the coverage. Downplaying the Levy report’s significance may prove unwise, however. If Netanyahu is embarrassed, it is only because of the timing of the report’s publication rather than its substance.
The torching of the Jaba mosque by the settlers was intended chiefly as a reminder to Israel’s right-wing government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, that any move against them risks triggering a round of intensified violence that will further damage Israel’s image with the international community. But it was also designed to dampen the enthusiasm of the courts for further costly run-ins with settlers. The Supreme Court, settlers hope, will be in no hurry to enforce the destruction of future Ulpanas.
Little more than a decade ago, in a brief interlude of heady optimism about the prospects of regional peace, the Israeli Supreme Court issued two landmark rulings that, it was widely assumed, heralded the advent of a new, post-Zionist era for Israel. But with two more watershed judgments handed down over the winter of 2011-2012 the same court has decisively reversed the tide.
Jewish far-right groups responsible for a series of arson attacks on West Bank mosques over the past year broke dangerous ground last week when they turned their attention for the first time to holy places inside Israel. A mosque was torched, followed days later by an attack on Muslim and Christian graves. In each case the settlers left their calling card – the words “Price tag”, indicating an act of revenge – scrawled on their handiwork.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, was reportedly “outraged” on Monday by images of the gutted mosque in the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangariya, close to the Galilee’s Jewish towns of Rosh Pina and Safed. However, critics pointed out that he and other government ministers had failed to express equal concern over a spate of similar attacks on mosques that have occurred in the West Bank over the past two years.
Jewish investors, led by a Jerusalem city councillor, last week foiled a bid by businessman Bashar Masri to become the first Palestinian to own a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. A coalition of settler groups and Israeli business leaders had branded as “treason” the initial acceptance of Masri’s offer late last month to bail out the settlement project’s owner, Digal, an Israeli investment company.
Israeli police have been criticised over their treatment of hundreds of Palestinian children, some as young as seven, arrested and interrogated on suspicion of stone-throwing in East Jerusalem. In the past year, criminal investigations have been opened against more than 1,200 Palestinian minors in Jerusalem on stone-throwing charges, according to police statistics. That was nearly twice the number of children arrested last year in the much larger Palestinian territory of the West Bank.
As US-sponsored peace talks have stalled over the issue of settlements, Israel’s national police force has revealed that it is turning to the very same illegal communities in its first-ever drive to recruit officers from among the settlers. The special officer training course includes seven months of religious studies in an extremist West Bank settlement. The programme has provoked widespread concern among Israel’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the population.
It would be misleading to assume that the major obstacle to the success of peace talks is the right-wing political ideology the settler movement represents. Equally important are deeply entrenched economic interests shared across Israeli society. These interests took root more than six decades ago with Israel’s establishment and have flourished at an ever-accelerating pace since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the Arab-Israeli War in 1967.
A rabbi from one of the most violent settlements in the West Bank was questioned on suspicion of incitement last week as Israeli police stepped up their investigation into a book in which he sanctions the killing of non-Jews, including children and babies. Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira is one of the leading ideologues of the most extreme wing of the religious settler movement.
The arrest by Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, of an Israeli Jew accused of killing at least four Palestinians, has thrown a rare light on the secret police, including attempts by one of its agents to enlist the accused to assassinate a Palestinian spiritual leader. Far-right groups have rapidly come to the aid of Chaim Pearlman, waging what the Shin Bet officials have described as “psychological warfare” by revealing damaging details about the case.
The Israeli government is facing legal action for contempt over its refusal to implement a Supreme Court ruling that it end a policy of awarding preferential budgets to Jewish communities, including settlements, rather than much poorer Palestinian Arab towns and villages inside Israel. The contempt case on behalf of Israel’s Palestinian minority comes in the wake of growing criticism of the government for ignoring court decisions it does not like — a trend that has been noted by the Supreme Court justices themselves.
With most Israelis assuming a new Middle East war is just around the corner, settler leaders are trying to prove to their compatriots that some 120 illegal Jewish colonies in the West Bank will provide an indispensable safe haven in time of emergency. The settlements have drawn up plans to accommodate as many as half a million Israelis forced to flee areas inside the country’s recognised borders if they come under rocket fire in wartime.
Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, has indicated he will defy an Israeli court that has ordered the demolition of 18 settler homes in the West Bank, in what is widely seen as a test of the government’s commitment to halting settlement expansion. The homes are to be found in what Israel terms “outposts” – small, land-hungry settlements it has promised the United States it will dismantle. Unlike the main settlements, which violate international law, the outposts are also illegal under Israeli law.
Over the past few days graffiti scrawled on walls around the mixed Jewish and Arab town of Jaffa in central Israel exclaims: “Settlers, keep out” and “Jaffa is not Hebron”. Although Jaffa is only a stone’s throw from the bustling coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv, Arab residents say their neighbourhood has become the unlikely battleground for an attempted takeover by extremist Jews more familiar from West Bank settlements.