The National – 3 March 2009
JERUSALEM // Peace Now’s revelation this week that Israel plans to build more than 70,000 homes in the West Bank is the latest in a string of troubling disclosures about settlement expansion. The plans were released with a transparent goal in mind: embarrassing the Israeli leadership as Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, arrived on her first visit to the region since her appointment.
According to the report, about 73,000 homes – most still on the drawing board but 9,000 of them already built – would double the current population of nearly 300,000 settlers in the West Bank (an additional 220,000 are in East Jerusalem).
Of those homes, nearly 20,000 would be built beyond the limits of the steel and concrete barrier Israel is erecting mostly inside the West Bank and which is widely assumed to be Israel’s vision of its future political border with a Palestinian state. Another 3,000 would be built in a corridor of land known as E1 that would seal off Palestinian access to East Jerusalem, and about 6,000 are planned for East Jerusalem itself, the only viable capital for a future Palestinian state.
Mrs Clinton has made clear that she wants to push negotiations with the Palestinians “vigorously” in the direction of a two-state solution, despite the expected establishment in the next few weeks of one of the most rightwing governments in Israel’s history, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader.
The Israeli media have already reported that panicked officials are worried US President Barack Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, will threaten a Netanyahu government with economic sanctions if it further undermines hopes of Palestinian statehood by expanding the settlements. Mr Netanyahu, concerned about his standing in Washington, has suggested vaguely that he will restrict settlements to what is called “natural growth”, or expansion to cope with the housing needs of the existing settler population. But he is publicly opposed to a two-state solution.
While Mr Netanyahu and his officials are the ones discomfited by revelations of a West Bank construction boom, it should be remembered that these plans were drawn up while the Likud leader was sitting in the opposition.
It was Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, the leaders of the centrist Kadima party, backed by Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labor party and their powerful defence minister, who either sanctioned or turned a blind eye to much of this planned orgy of illegal construction.
They did so as they supposedly gave their support to the Annapolis conference held in 2007 that was designed to revive the peace process and at which Israel vowed to freeze settlement growth. Only weeks after the conference, it was revealed that settlers were moving trailers on to Palestinian land near Ramallah unopposed and building in the Jordan Valley.
British newspapers, meanwhile, reported that Israeli companies were selling cut-price homes in West Bank settlements at London property exhibitions.
There has been barely a pause in the drip-drip of such revelations since.
Mr Barak has personally overseen the failure to dismantle even the most patently problematic settlements of all, about 100 so-called “outposts” that are illegal under Israeli law but which are used by settlers to take up yet more land for their benefit.
In a deal with the settlers’ political representatives announced last month, the largest outpost, Migron near Ramallah, may eventually be dismantled. But Mr Barak’s achievement came only at the self-defeating price of agreeing to build an even larger “legal” settlement for Migron’s inhabitants nearby.
Far less has been achieved with the 120 official settlements which, rather than fighting for survival, are growing at a rate not seen since the Oslo process of the late 1990s.
Last week another human rights group, B’Tselem, revealed that Israel’s military government in the West Bank, known misleadingly as the civil administration, was preparing the infrastructure, including water and sewage lines, to cope with thousands of new settler homes in the West Bank.
At the same time, reports surfaced that Israel had seized some 330 acres near Bethlehem, declaring it state land, to build a new settlement eventually expected to house 10,000 settlers.
Dror Etkes, who monitors settlement expansion for the human rights group Yesh Din, noted that Israel had arbitrarily declared some 30 per cent of the West Bank “state land”, forbidding all Palestinian development on it. But the land theft does not end there.
Details of an internal defence ministry database of the settlements were leaked in January showing that officials had been allowing settlers to build on vast areas of land not confiscated by the state but ostensibly still in private Palestinian hands.
The consequences, as Mr Etkes pointed out, are that, whereas 97 per cent of Palestinian building permits were approved by Israel in 1972, early in the occupation, today that figure has fallen to just five per cent. There is no “natural growth” for Palestinians, even when it is on their own land.
Allowed a free hand, Mr Netanyahu would probably advocate a policy on West Bank settlement not much different from that pursued by his immediate predecessors. But paradoxically, it is likely to be Mr Netanyahu’s very hawkishness that offers Washington a pretext to finally crack down on the settlements.
The question is whether such intervention has arrived too late to salvage the two-state solution.