'No room left'
As Palestinians try, not very successfully, to bring a semblance of order to their house, Israel is grabbing even more of their land, reports Khalid Amayreh from the West Bank
Flying in the face of the international community and encouraged by American acquiescence, Israel has embarked on a massive settlement expansion drive in the West Bank with the all-apparent goal of killing the possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state in the occupied territory.
This week, Israeli bulldozers and huge cranes were in action in many localities in the West Bank, moving earth and preparing ground for the construction of thousands of settler housing units. Much of the activity took place in and near settlements straddling occupied Arab East Jerusalem, such as Gilo, Maali Adomim, Efrata, and Beitar where Israeli officials said hundreds of settlements would be built within a year.
The planned expansion will hermetically isolate East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and complete the calving of the occupied territory into three or four truncated enclaves lacking territorial contiguity.
The phenomenal expansion is apparently enjoying tacit American approval as the Bush administration has so far refused to pressure Israel on this matter. Earlier this week, The New York Times quoted "reliable sources" in the Bush administration as saying that the US had decided to acquiesce to the new settlement building drive in the West Bank in order to strengthen the position of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vis-a-vis his opponents within the Likud party.
The Likud general assembly this week once again rejected Sharon's bid to include the Labour party into his government, placing him in a "lame duck position", to use the words of one Israeli commentator.
Seeking to placate and appease the extreme right-wingers in his party (who are obviously in the majority), Sharon reportedly instructed the Finance, Housing and Defence Ministries (headed respectively by the three most hawkish members of his cabinet -- Benyamin Netanyahu, Tsibi Livni and Shaul Mofaz) to accelerate the consolidation of "the Jewish grip" on the West Bank.
The American "change of heart" towards settlement expansion came after US envoy Elliot Abrams, who visited Israel in early August, said that a head-on confrontation with Sharon on settlement expansion wouldn't be in the Bush administration's "best interests", alluding to the upcoming elections and Bush's efforts to woo Jewish votes and money.
On Monday, a junior American official, Adam Earli, issued a terse and vague statement, saying the US stance on the settlements remained unchanged.
However, senior American officials have so far refused to denounce the fresh settlement drive, giving credence to The New York Times report and suggesting that the Bush administration would go to any extent to appease Israel, regardless of its declared verbal commitment to the "roadmap" for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Feeling frustrated and helpless by what they view as American connivance with Israel, Palestinian Authority (PA) officials warned that Israel was killing the two-state solution.
"If Israel continues grabbing our land, there will be no room left for a Palestinian state. Then the only remaining alternative will be the one-state solution," said PA official Saeb Erekat.
He called on the US to "honestly clarify" its position on the settlements, arguing that the Bush administration cannot publicly support the roadmap while conspiring with Israel in secret to corrode the peace process.
Needless to say, the building of thousands of additional Jewish-only housing units in the West Bank constitutes the antithesis of the roadmap and is brazenly at variance with President Bush's declared vision of seeing a viable and territorially contiguous Palestinian state created in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, PA officials are struggling to overcome a gnarled political crisis at home stemming mainly from Yasser Arafat's adamant refusal to introduce reforms and fight rampant corruption permeating throughout the PA apparatus.
This week, Arafat met with his former security chief Mohamed Dahlan in an effort to reunite Fatah leaders behind Arafat's leadership. The meeting, arranged by the speaker of the Legislative Council, Rawhi Fattuh, ended indecisively, with Arafat refusing to make resolute commitments to introduce reforms.
Earlier, Dahlan reportedly castigated several of Arafat's aides, including Jibril Rajoub, Abbas Zaki, Hani Al-Hasan and Nabil Abu Rudeina, for submitting false reports to the PA chairman.
Palestinian sources said Arafat might try to co-opt Dahlan by offering him the Interior Ministry portfolio in an effort to strengthen the internal unity of Fatah and fend off international criticism. However, it seems that the re-inclusion of Dahlan into the PA government is strongly opposed by the more radical Fatah rank and file, especially members of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
This week, a leaflet purported to be issued by the Brigades called Dahlan a CIA officer and warned Arafat against including him in the government.
Meanwhile, the former and first PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) has reemerged from months of political dormancy. Reliable sources in the PA intimated that Arafat has asked Abu Mazen to head the Fatah delegation to the inter-factional dialogue in Cairo next month.
According to the same sources, Abu Mazen will also be representing the PA in talks and contacts with the European Union and the United States, given his moderate image.
The latest developments came as PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei met with Fatah leaders in the West Bank for the purpose of reunifying the movement.