The fact and the fiction of Israel’s settlement building
Last month Israel laid claim to nearly a thousand acres in the Etzion settlement bloc near Bethlehem. The area has been designated “state land” by the military-run civil administration, a decision that has triggered intense debate on both sides of the political divide.
In the United States, several journals have published analysis claiming that the land lies inside blocs of territory that Israel would anyway annex under any potential peace agreement with Palestinians.
Former Bush adviser Elliott Abrams went a step further, pointing out in Foreign Policy that “Netanyahu has notably maintained his policy on constraining settlement construction”, and that the “nine-month construction moratorium imposed [in 2010] by Netanyahu at the request of the United States […] produced no Palestinian concessions and no progress”.
Finally, Abrams stated that “the land is in Gush Etzion – an area predominantly populated by Jews since before 1948”.
These assessments fail to provide a full account. Apart from Hadar Betar and Kfar Etzion, all the settlements within the Gush Etzion cluster of villages have expanded by more than 100% in the last 20 years. The block today also includes eight unauthorised outposts that make it difficult for Palestinians to access their natural resources.
To conflate this massive state-funded project of colonisation with what is commonly referred to as the “re-establishment of a Jewish presence in the West Bank”, oversimplifies a complex issue.
On top of this, it indirectly suggests that the majority of Palestinians reject in principle a Jewish presence on their land.
But, as the Palestinian archaeologist Nazmi Jubeh has argued: “any Jew who wants to live in our community, following the rules which this entails, must be free to do so. It’s quite a different story, however, to request that the settlers who arrived here by force and in defiance of international law can ipso facto be entitled to see their actions justified”.
It is noteworthy that article 31 of the Oslo Agreements required that “neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip”. It is a matter of debate whether the application of the Oslo Accords beyond its five-year interim period – a period characterized by the construction of a huge number of new settlements, by Palestinian terrorism and Israeli military operations – is still relevant. It is nonetheless clear that settlements are used to change, unilaterally, the status of a relevant percentage of the Palestinian territories. This is confirmed by the fact that in each round of negotiations the Israeli authorities require to take into account the new local demography.
The ten-month construction moratorium accepted in 2010 by Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu proved to be nothing of the sort.
Indeed, a close look at the building works programme reveals that the “settlement freeze” did not include East Jerusalem or the halting of public buildings, such as schools and synagogues. It applied only to new projects, meaning that construction continued apace, with the result that in the weeks preceding the moratorium a boom of new buildings was registered.
Moreover, in the weeks following the end of the moratorium, 1,650 new houses were built – barely fewer than the number built in all of the previous year.
Finally, in the four years after Mr Netanyahu assumed office in 2009, 38 per cent of nearly 6,900 West Bank construction projects were reported to have been started in settlements deep inside Palestinian territory. This compares with 20 per cent under his predecessors.
Mr Netanyahu’s policies have brought many severe consequences, not the least of which are the way they have strengthen the Palestinian extremist fringes, torn apart the majority of the Palestinian people and increased Israel’s isolation from the rest of the international community.
Dr Lorenzo Kamel is a research fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His book, Imperial Perceptions of Palestine, will be published by IB Tauris later this year
Updated: September 14, 2014 04:00 AM