Settlers

With Israel and Hamas locked in military stalemate after their 50-day confrontation in Gaza, attention had returned to reviving a peace process between Israel and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. That is the context for assessing Israel’s decision to antagonise all its main partners against Hamas by announcing plans this week for the biggest land grab in the West Bank in three decades.

Some 9,000 police have been drafted in to protect the Pope during his visit to Israel, and Christian institutions are under round-the-clock protection. According to a Vatican official, Israel’s preparations have turned “the holy sites into a military base”. But Israel is loath to publicise the grounds for its concerns, because the most tangible threat comes not from Islamic extremists but Jewish fanatics linked to the settler movement.

A wave of violence over the past fortnight, including attacks on two mosques and a church, has shocked Israel’s large Palestinian minority. Growing ever bolder, it seems, Israeli right-wing extremists are shifting attention to Palestinian areas inside Israel. Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have accused Israeli authorities of repeatedly turning a blind eye to the attacks.

A right-wing Israeli settlement group has been put in charge of two controversial new projects to develop the area around al-Haram al-Sharif, the compound of holy sites that includes al-Aqsa mosque. Elad received planning approval this month to develop a huge visitors’ centre just outside the Old City walls in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. While the visitors’ centre will give Elad a base less than 20 metres from the Old City, a second project could extend its reach to the retaining wall of al-Aqsa mosque itself.

The US and Israel have relied on the endless theatrics of the two-decade peace process as a distraction from the main developments on the ground. UN special rapporteur Richard Falk noted that Israel has cynically exploited the peace process to expand its settlement programme. The innocuous term “settlements” conceals their true role: as Israel’s primary vehicle for ethnic cleansing.

It is easy to forget, with eulogies casting him as the unexpected “peace-maker”, that for most of his long military and political career Ariel Sharon was known simply as The Bulldozer. He explicitly refused to accept that the 1948 war that established Israel was over. In practice, his philosophy of creating change through bold action meant taking as much as land from the Palestinians as possible – an approach one Israeli analyst termed ‘politicide’.

Israel is again at the centre of moves to challenge key agencies at the United Nations, as it lobbies to prevent the Palestinian leadership from gaining more of a foothold in global forums. Israel ended a 20-month boycott of the UN Human Rights Council last month, but did so only after securing promises of reforms that human rights groups say will further weaken international efforts to hold Israel accountable for its illegal occupation.

The focus of last week’s World Bank report is on the nearly two-thirds of the West Bank, known as Area C, exclusively under Israeli control and in which Israel has implanted more than 200 settlements to grab Palestinian land and resources. The report reflects mounting frustration in European capitals and elsewhere at Israeli intransigence and seeming US impotence. Europeans, in particular, are exasperated at their continuing role effectively subsidising through aid an Israeli occupation with no end in sight.

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.

How 20 tents rocked Israel

14 January 2013

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.

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