Israel's Current Demand:
Most of the West Bank
March-April 2012, Pages 8-9, 17
By Rachelle Marshall
In the first stage we shall see euphoria, upon our return to our ancient sites. Next we shall see the emergence of a messianic, radical and dangerous nationalism. In the third stage we shall see Israeli society becoming more brutal and the emergence of a police state.—Israeli philosopher Yeshaya Liebowitz, shortly after Israel's victory in the June 1967 war.
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians began in 1991 and have continued intermittently since then, with the two sides steadily moving farther apart. Meanwhile Israel has been building settlements that today house half a million Israelis—Jewish only—on Palestinian land. The Palestinians frequently complained they were negotiating with Israel over the division of a pie while Israel was busy eating it. Israel is now offering to give back some of the crumbs.
Israeli negotiators announced in late January that their guiding principle for a two-state solution would be for existing settlement blocs to become permanent parts of Israel, with the new boundary defined by the separation barrier that has been under construction since 2006. The Palestinians charged that the proposal amounted to an abandonment of international law, since it assumes that both sides have an equal claim to the West Bank—when in fact Israel's continued occupation and its settlements are in violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and several U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Designating the separation wall as the new boundary between Israel and the Palestinians would mean giving Israel more than 10 percent of the West Bank and leaving the Palestinians with the rest: 12 percent of original Palestine instead of the 22 percent they are asking for. Even that 12 percent would be a fragmented territory, divided up by Jewish-only highways, Israeli military bases, and the proliferating outposts established by ultranationalist militants.
The barrier that Israel wants to make the permanent border runs well east of the Green Line and in many places separates villagers from their farms and orchards. Chris Hedges, former Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, has described the wall as confining Palestinians to "a series of podlike militarized ghettos," while giving Israel the West Bank's most valuable water acquifers and more than 40,000 acres of its prime agricultural land.
Israel's insistence on annexing the major Jewish settlements means that until there is a firm peace agreement, Israel can go on expanding its reach into West Bank territory indefinitely. Indeed, it is doing so as rapidly as possible. Obviously aware of this fact, four members of the U.N. Security Council—Britain, France, Germany and Portugal—issued a statement in late December asking Israel to stop all settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and pointing out that the settlements are illegal under international law.
The Security Council members were calling into the wind as far as Israel was concerned. As the year ended, plans were going ahead for 3,690 new apartments in East Jerusalem and 1,000 in nearby settlements. Peace Now reported a 20 percent increase in settlement construction in 2011, with 1,850 new units going up in settlements east of the separation wall, and 3,500 elsewhere in the West Bank. Human rights groups noted a corresponding increase in home demolitions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
At the end of January, a day before Netanyahu won re-election as head of the Likud party, he designated 70 settlements as priority areas for expansion, with subsidies for new housing and development. The decision, according to the prime minister's office, was "designed to encourage positive migration to the communities" and help ease Israel's housing shortage. Since 57 of the settlements to be developed are east of the wall and deep inside the West Bank, Israel's action amounted to the further battering of a moribund peace process, and an end to any hope of a two-state solution.
Palestinians living within range of the settlements have more immediate problems, however, since there seems no limit to the brutality of settlers and the army. In late December, a coalition of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, reported that during 2011 settlers destroyed hundreds of homes, water wells and farm structures, as well as 10,000 olive trees, some of them dating from Roman times. As Palestinians struggled to get by with ever scarcer land and water, the Israeli army destroyed a land reclamation project funded by the Dutch government and a solar energy project funded by Spain.
On Jan. 23, 100 Bedouins in Anata, northeast of Jerusalem, were forced into the cold outdoors just before midnight, when army bulldozers arrived without warning and demolished their entire community, including all their personal belongings. Many of the displaced were children and babies. On Jan. 25 near Hebron, Mohammed Abu Qbeita was building a house on his own land when soldiers came and ordered him to stop. When he refused to move, an army officer truck knocked him to the ground and drove a trailers attached to a tractor over his legs, crushing one of them.
No one is safe from the random cruelty. Shortly before Christmas an Anglican choir from the Bethlehem Bible School was returning from a concert in Nablus when their bus was attacked by a group of settlers who smashed the windshield and several windows, forcing the driver to drive away at high speed.
More than 90 percent of Palestinian complaints filed with the police are ignored, but the response was markedly different when Jewish extremists attacked an Israeli army base in mid-December. They vandalized vehicles, threw bricks and smashed windows in reaction to a rumor that a few outposts were to be dismantled. Five of the attackers were arrested for conspiracy to riot and for gathering military intelligence on Israeli troop movements. Defense Minister Ehud Barak called their actions "homegrown terror."
The militants are reported to have close ties to some members of the Knesset and to members of the army who kept them informed when an outpost was scheduled to be dismantled. They are also supported by the American Friends of Likud, chaired by American millionaire Kenneth Abramowitz.
Whatever their eventual fate, the Israeli detainees are certain to avoid the treatment accorded most Palestinian prisoners, often including children. They were not beaten, subjected to harsh interrogation, or confined indefinitely without trial. The handful of Israelis who have been arrested for taking part in arson attacks on mosques and other Palestinian property were not even jailed, but only barred from the West Bank for periods ranging from 3 to 12 weeks.
Even more serious damage is being done to Palestinian society and governance by the Israeli government, with help from the U.S. Israel's withholding of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax payments, and a cut of $147 million in U.S. aid have together contributed to a financial crisis for the Palestinian Authority. The penalties were imposed in retaliation for the Authority's petition for full membership in the U.N., and its acceptance as a member of the U.N. Economic, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Israel and the U.S. have threatened even greater punishment if President Mahmoud Abbas carries through with his agreement to join in a unity government with Hamas.
The basic cause of the Palestinians' financial problems and the stifling of their economy, however, is not the cuts in foreign aid, but Israel's occupation. Israel controls 60 percent of the land on the West Bank, as well as its borders and most of the water. The PA must import electricity from Israel, and monthly bills have doubled and even tripled, according to the Consumer Protection Society. The Palestinians also must import most of their consumer goods from Israel, and prices keep rising. The cost of chicken has doubled in recent years.
Missing from the punitive measures imposed by Israel and the U.S. is any semblance of rationality. The Palestinian Authority under the leadership of President Abbas, and especially Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, has greatly reduced corruption and established the institutions that could someday be the basis of a stable and independent state. The PA has also restored law and order to the West Bank and helped provide Israel with the security it demands.
The obligation to provide free education for a million schoolchildren and support some 96,000 needy families, including those of prisoners in Israeli jails, has placed a heavy burden on a Palestinian economy suffering under tight Israeli restrictions. In order to continue providing vital services and cope with a $1.1 billion deficit, the PA has been forced to raise taxes and propose early retirement for 20,000 workers. The result is growing unrest among Palestinians, who in recent weeks have taken to the streets in protest demonstrations.
Like others around the world, Palestinians undoubtedly want a future in which they are able to get an education, raise their children without fear, earn a livelihood, be able to travel, and above all be free of an occupation that impinges on every aspect of their lives. With Hamas willing to renounce violence and enter serious peace negotiations, Israel now has an opportunity both to fulfill these hopes and assure its own security.
The agreement signed on Feb. 6 by Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and Abbas to form a unity government headed by Abbas is designed to prepare the way for elections in the West Bank and Gaza and eventually a Palestinian government that represented all factions of Palestinian society. Netanyahu responded to the news by threatening to end all peace efforts. "Hamas is an enemy of peace," he said. "The only thing that ensures our existence, security, and prosperity is strength."
The Obama administration has so far withheld judgment, but since congressional amendments require that no U.S. aid go to Hamas, even the aid that goes to maintain Palestinian security forces will be stopped (see p. 31 of this issue).
Unfounded Fears of Hamas
Fears of Hamas as a terrorist organization are unfounded, according to Khaled Hroub of Cambridge University, who says there has been a major shift in the strategy of Hamas away from armed resistance. "The whole nonviolent strategy has shown its effectiveness," Hroub said. "The Arab Spring has proved this with the fall of strong governments in Egypt and Tunisia."
Meshal, who survived a 1997 Israeli assassination attempt in Amman, has conveyed this message to several Arab leaders. In late January he and several members of Hamas' political bureau traveled to Jordan with a delegation that included the crown prince of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, to meet with King Abdullah II. After the meeting, the royal palace issued a statement calling for a two-state solution and citing "the importance of unity among the Palestinian groups." Hamas in turn praised the visit as "a good start" and expressed an awareness of Jordan's need for security and stability.
Opposition by Washington and Israel to a unity government that represents all Palestinian factions is dangerously short-sighted, since such a government would be the only guarantee of a lasting peace agreement.The history of such countries as South Africa, Israel, and most recently Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is now the majority party in Parliament, shows that groups that once relied on violence become far more pragmatic when they are accepted into the political system and have a stake in its success. Statements by prominent Hamas members such as Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh expressing a willingness to work with Abbas indicate that Hamas would be no exception.
Hamas "is going through the same process as the Muslim Brotherhood elsewhere," according to Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of a Palestinian research group in Jerusalem. "The new political Islam is practical and realistic."
If Israeli leaders truly wanted peace with the Palestinians, they would recognize that once there is a peace agreement that provides independence for the Palestinian people in a state of their own, any Palestinian faction that tried to disrupt that agreement and reignite the conflict would be condemned by a majority of Palestinians. An independent Palestinian state that fulfilled the aspirations of an overwhelming majority of Palestinians is the surest way to assure Israel's security.
Israel's latest demands suggest, however, that Israel's first priority is not security, but continued dominance over the Palestinians. There is no other explanation for the Netanyahu government's determination to build more West Bank settlements, and its insistence that most of those settlements, along with the Jordan Valley, become a permanent part of Israel. The Israelis are calling on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table without conditions, but their continued settlement expansion and opposition to reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah indicate they have no interest in peace.
Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Mill Valley, CA. A member of Jewish Voice for Peace, she writes frequently on the Middle East.