x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Israel resists pressure to halt settlement growth

Even as Israel's defense minister headed to New York ostensibly in order to resolve a growing conflict with the US over continued settlement expansion in the West Bank, Israel authorised the construction of new housing. As the demand to freeze settlements has built into a unified chorus from all quarters in recent months, there are still no signs that Israel is about to yield to what The Jerusalem Post has described as "withering pressure".

After a meeting by the Quartet of Middle East mediators in the northern Italian town of Trieste on Friday, a statement was issued which said: "The Quartet urged the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth; to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001; and to refrain from provocative actions in East Jerusalem, including home demolition and evictions." As the demand to freeze settlements has built into a unified chorus from the US and the other members of the Quartet in recent months, there are still no signs that Israel is about to yield to what The Jerusalem Post has described as "withering pressure". On the contrary, as The Wall Street Journal reported: "Israel said Monday it authorised the construction of 50 new residential units in a West Bank settlement, defying rising pressure from the US and the international community for a building freeze in territory claimed by the Palestinians as part of a future state. "The expansion of Adam, a settlement near Jerusalem surrounded by three Palestinian villages, is part of a defense ministry plan to relocate 300 residents of the unauthorised hilltop outpost of Migron. "The government is being pressed to evacuate the outpost because of a High Court petition from 2006 by Palestinians and Israeli peace groups arguing Migron is built on private Palestinian property." On Monday, the organisation, Americans for Peace Now, called on the Obama administration to hold Israel to its commitment to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and to demand that Israel reverse its decision to relocate settlers from the illegal outpost of Migron. "An affidavit filed with the Israeli High Court of Justice yesterday shows that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government approved the construction of a new 'neighborhood' near the settlement of Adam just two days after Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama in the White House. At a press availability following the meeting, Obama reiterated that Israel has committed to a settlement freeze and said that settlements have to be stopped. " 'Not only did Netanyahu approve construction at a new site in the West Bank, he did so in order to accommodate settlers who built an outpost on privately-owned Palestinian land and while President Obama's demand for a settlements to stop was still ringing in his ears,' said Debra DeLee, APN's President and CEO." Meanwhile, Reuters reported: "Israel has angered Palestinians with a plan to expropriate plots of West Bank land between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea including areas exposed by the lake's receding water levels. "A spokesman for Israel's Civil Administration Authority, an arm of the Defense Ministry, said Monday it advertised in the Jerusalem-based al-Quds newspaper Friday. Palestinians who object to the move were invited to file appeals within 45 days. " 'The land in question includes a strip along the shores of the Dead Sea that emerged over the years as the water receded due to shrinkage,' the spokesman said. "Palestinians have been lobbying Washington to pressure Israel to halt land seizures and settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank. " 'This would be the largest area of land ever confiscated by Israel in one go since 1967. We will appeal against this decision,' said Hatem Abdel-Qader, Palestinian Authority Minister for Jerusalem Affairs." In what appears to be a new effort to redefine the meaning of a "settlement freeze", Israeli officials told The New York Times that "Israel would be open to a complete freeze of settlement building in the West Bank for three to six months as part of a broad Middle East peace endeavour that included a Palestinian agreement to negotiate an end to the conflict and confidence-building steps by major Arab nations". The officials said that during this "complete freeze", work on an estimated 2,000 buildings currently under construction in the West Bank would continue. Also, existing or planned construction in East Jerusalem would continue without impediment. "Mr Barak himself declined to address the question of a temporary freeze in a conversation on Sunday with The New York Times, saying only that settlements should be viewed as one issue in a larger framework needed to create a Middle East peace. " 'For us, it is very important that the Palestinians commit to seeking an end to the conflict and a finality of any claims,' he said. 'We should not isolate this issue of settlements and make it the most important one. It has to be discussed in the context of a larger peace discussion.' "He added, 'Many Israelis fear that what Palestinians want is not two states but two stages,' meaning an end to Israel in phases. He also said that by focusing solely on settlement building and not on what the Arab countries should also be doing for peace, Israel felt that it was being driven to its knees and delivered to the other side rather than asked to join a shared effort." In an analysis for The Jerusalem Post, Yaakov Katz noted: "Netanyahu and Barak may feel that a three-month freeze is itself a major concession, considering the right-wing makeup of the current government, but this could turn out to be a self-defeating proposal. If Israel is willing to freeze construction for three months to restart talks with the Palestinians, Mitchell could ask Barak on Monday, then why not freeze construction for the entire duration of the talks? "Barak will have a tough time finding an answer." Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, wrote: "The debate over Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories is often framed in terms of whether they should be 'frozen' or allowed to grow 'naturally'. But that is akin to asking whether a thief should be allowed merely to keep his ill-gotten gains or steal some more. It misses the most fundamental point: Under international law, all settlements on occupied territory are unlawful. And there is only one remedy: Israel should dismantle them, relocate the settlers within its recognised 1967 borders and compensate Palestinians for the losses the settlements have caused. "Removing the settlements is mandated by the laws of the Geneva Convention, which state that military occupations are to be a temporary state of affairs and prohibit occupying powers from moving their populations into conquered territory. The intent is to foreclose an occupying power from later citing its population as 'facts on the ground' to claim the territory, something Israel has done in East Jerusalem and appears to want to do with much of the West Bank. "The legal principles were reaffirmed in 2004 by the International Court of Justice, which cited a UN Security Council statement that the settlements were 'a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.' The International Committee of the Red Cross and an overwhelming number of institutions concerned with the enforcement of international humanitarian law have concurred in that view."

pwoodward@thenational.ae