The Daily Star – 13 May 2006
The guiding principles of Israel’s new coalition government agreed last week to free Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to pursue his big idea: “hitkansut,” a Hebrew word embracing ideas related to “convergence”, “consolidation” and “ingathering.” In practice, it means Israel will begin shaping the final borders of the Jewish state over the next few years.
For Israelis, the plan has one main, traumatic outcome: some 60,000 Jewish settlers located in the remoter, smaller settlements will be forced to leave their homes, much as Gaza’s settlers were made to depart last year. Israelis are braced for more tears, threats and pictures of flailing youths manhandled by soldiers.
In practice, however, the concessions required by consolidation will be slight. Israel’s other 360,000 settlers (85 percent) will stay where they are now, in defiance of international law and protected by the West Bank barrier. The rest will either be moved to the main settlements or new homes inside Israel, probably in the Galilee and Negev, two traditional Arab heartlands Israel is publicly concerned to make more Jewish. The Labor Party, Olmert’s main coalition partner, has signed up for the plan; in fact, its leader, Amir Peretz, the new defense minister, will be responsible for overseeing its implementation.
But what will this kind of “convergence” mean for the Palestinians, both the 3.8 million living in the Occupied Territories, including Jerusalem, and the more than 1 million who live as citizens of Israel?
First, while Olmert’s plan is almost certain to be imposed unilaterally – as the coalition’s guiding principles concede – its effects will be felt bilaterally. Palestinian lives will be shaped just as much by convergence as Israeli lives. Second, despite the consolidation implicit in “hitkansut,” Olmert’s goal is not the same for the Palestinians as it is for Israeli Jews.
The long-delayed fixing of the Jewish state’s borders – expanded ones, annexing a significant proportion of Palestinian West Bank land – will create a single state into which all Israelis will be gathered. The Palestinian state will be an entirely different affair. Rather than consolidating Palestinians into one state, the plan will create a series of communal enclaves – though to satisfy international expectations, Israel may collude in the pretence that these ghettos are a single state. The Palestinian experience might better be described as “outgathering,” the converse of Israel’s “ingathering.” Each ghetto will have its own set of problems and issues, and the connections between each will be severely circumscribed, making meaningful Palestinian politics all but impossible.
Anyone who doubts this imminent development ought to consider recent events, when Israel formulated its response to Islamic Jihad’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv last month. Outraged by Hamas’ refusal to denounce the attack, Olmert declared that three Hamas parliamentarians and a Cabinet minister, Mahmoud Abu Tir, were to have their Jerusalem residency revoked. In short, they were being expelled from their native city to the West Bank. In Israel’s view, they were being “deported” – a legal fiction that assumes the West Bank and Jerusalem are not the same piece of Palestinian territory, but separate countries.
East Jerusalem Palestinians have faced a maze of bureaucratic restrictions (on residency, building and planning) to make their lives near-impossible and to “persuade” them to move to the West Bank ever since their city was illegally annexed after the 1967 war. One of the main architects of this campaign of administrative harassment was none other than Olmert himself, a former mayor of Jerusalem.
Olmert’s vision of convergence will continue his long-standing policies in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian half of the city will be consolidated, but not with the West Bank. Instead it will be consolidated into its own ghetto, comprising only those Palestinians prepared to sever their ties to their people, including their elected representatives. Anyone dissenting will doubtless be expelled in the same manner as the Hamas parliamentarians last week.
In the West Bank, consolidation will follow the outline already being created by the wall. The long fingers of Israeli settlement blocs – Ariel, Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion – will carve up the West Bank into a series of further ghettoes, based on the main cities. One needs only to see the Palestinian city of Qalqilya, entirely choked off by the concrete wall on all sides, to understand how limiting life like this will be. Gaza is already a ghetto in all but name.
And finally how will the population of 1 million Palestinian citizens of Israel fit into this jigsaw? It seems they will find themselves in their own ghettoes, mirroring the treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. There has been much talk at the highest levels of the Israeli government about taking away the citizenship of 250,000 Palestinians who live in a thin wedge of Israeli territory close to the West Bank cities of Jenin and Tulkarm. According to leaks, the intention is to transfer their homes to any future “Palestinian state” in a land swap of the kind considered at Camp David in 2000.
In the Negev, Bedouin farmers have been facing their own version of consolidation – or “concentration” as it is ominously referred to by officials. They are being forced into special townships where they must renounce both their traditional way of life and their title deeds to ancestral lands. Ministers regularly call the Bedouin “illegal invaders,” “trespassers” and “criminals” – an indication of how secure their rights are likely to be in the new arrangement.
And the Palestinian residents of the Galilee have heard repeated demands from Israeli politicians that they be made to sign a “loyalty oath” to the Jewish state or face either expulsion or having their rights reassigned to the still-mythical Palestinian state. The anti-Arab atmosphere in Israel is such that Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of one of the country’s biggest parties and a man courted by Olmert for a Cabinet post, demanded last week that the Palestinian minority’s representatives be executed for treason because they had met – quite legally – with the Hamas parliamentarians facing expulsion from Jerusalem.
Olmert’s convergence doubtless seeks to establish and legitimize an enlarged Jewish state. But this can never hope to quench Palestinian ambitions for real statehood. The policy will terminate Palestinian politics but not Palestinian resistance. If unilateral disengagement encouraged Fatah’s replacement by a newly pragmatic Hamas, convergence will almost certainly foster deeper Palestinian militancy.
The expulsion of the Hamas parliamentarians and the talk of excluding Israel’s Arab citizens from Olmert’s new borders suggest the longer-term vision. Israel is devising measures to depopulate the Palestinian ghettoes – in Israel and annexed East Jerusalem – that pose the most threat to the consolidation of a pure Jewish state. These Palestinians are likely to lose the limited privileges associated with citizenship and permanent residency they currently enjoy under Israeli law. Meanwhile, Israel will be free to work on the West Bank and Gaza ghettoes directly, through its control of borders, trade, airspace, water and radio frequencies. In response to the human bombs and Qassam rockets that will doubtless become the main – if not the only available – expression of Palestinian dissent, Israel will further tighten its grip on these areas.
Under such circumstances, an exodus of Palestinians may be possible to engineer over time. The deprived inhabitants of Palestine’s ghettoes will come to identify with their Arab neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, for trade, education and livelihoods. The center of their lives will shift. The dream of Israeli politicians of the left and right may finally be in sight: a “regional solution” that ensures Palestinian dispossession for good.