Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 March 2009
Issue No. 938
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Building on bold-faced lies

Leaked Israeli settlement expansion plans prove that interminable peace talks are but cover for the material destruction of Palestinian horizons, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied East Jerusalem

While Israel never stops claiming that it has a sincere desire for peace with the Palestinians, the Israeli Housing Ministry, in coordination with other government agencies as well as the occupation army, is finalising plans to build tens of thousands of Jewish settler units all over the West Bank, especially in occupied East Jerusalem.

The plans, it is generally agreed, would put an end to Palestinian dreams of establishing a viable and territorially contiguous state that they could call their own. According to a detailed document by the Israeli Peace Now group, which monitors the proliferation of Jewish colonies in the West Bank, the Housing Ministry is planning to build more than 73,000 new apartments and settler units on occupied Palestinian land.

If implemented, the plan means that existing settlements would more than double, both in the sheer number of apartments and in terms of the settler population. That population now stands at more than half a million in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. However, one major obstacle that could impede the implementation of the plan is the growing dearth of Jewish immigrants from abroad.

In 2008, less than 18,000 immigrants arrived in Israel. This is a mere trickle compared to the hundreds of thousands who arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the Israeli government hopes to be able to tackle this problem, at least partially, by giving "generous inducements" to potential settlers that would woo Israeli Jewish citizens to move onto the West Bank. These inducements include hefty tax reductions, preferential treatment with regards to income tax, and long-term loans.

Predictably, the Peace Now revelations drew furious reactions from Palestinian leaders who labelled the plan "peace killer". "If this is true, then it will be futile to even think about peace, let alone the continued relevance of the two- state solution," said Palestinian Authority (PA) official Saeb Erekat.

"I believe that if the international community is sincere about peace in this part of the world then it must force Israel to stop stealing Palestinian land. As far as we are concerned, we can't allow this incessant theft of our land to go on and on under the rubric of a disingenuous process that has a form but has no substance," he added.

Erekat said the PA would be closely watching how the Obama administration deals with the issue of settlements. The Palestinian official tacitly admitted that the Bush administration's approach towards the "settlement issue" was scandalous, adding that the next Israeli government, led by Benyamin Netanyahu, would have to accept the principle of land-for-peace or otherwise there will be no peace process left.

Embarrassed by the leaking of the plan, which was applauded by members of the religious and right-wing parties, Israeli government reactions ranged from silence to half-hearted denials. Israeli Housing Minister Zeev Boim, a former deputy defence minister and a notorious hawk advocating an accelerated pace of settlement expansion, described the Peace Now document as "baseless and inaccurate".

However, Boim did admit that at least 11,000 settler units were approved for construction in 2009 and that hundreds of other tenders had been issued for construction in colonies in the central and northern parts of the West Bank. He also indicated that more tenders might have been issued by other government agencies.

Boim's defences were flatly rejected both by Peace Now and Palestinian experts on Jewish settlement activities as "sly and dishonest manipulation of statistics". Abdel-Hadi Hantash, a veteran cartographer and noted expert on Jewish settlement expansion, described Boim's pronouncements as "prevarications and outright lies". "These people are pathological liars. They claim they want peace, but everything they do on the ground shows beyond any doubt that true peace is the last thing on their minds," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Hantash said Israel was following a master plan the implementation of which would render the creation of a Palestinian state impossible.

"We have to differentiate between official Israeli pronouncements on the one hand, and activities on the ground, on the other. In terms of activities on the ground, it is manifestly obvious that Israel is building new settlements and expanding existing ones, and in both cases more Palestinian land is confiscated, or more correctly, stolen," he said.

Hantash described Israeli claims that most of the new building occurs within existing settlements themselves and is aimed at meeting immediate housing needs for the settlers as a "pack of lies". "First of all, the settlements themselves are illegal according to international law, because the West Bank is not a disputed territory as Israel claims but an occupied land. Second, I have accurate information based on Israeli sources that the vacancy rate in settlements in the West Bank stands at 18-25 per cent. Hence, the mantra of 'natural growth' is merely a pretext, and for that matter a mendacious one."

Israeli plans -- both long-standing and new -- to swallow up East Jerusalem, now accelerated, have drawn angry reactions from the European Union. According to a confidential EU report issued on 15 December, Israel is using settlement expansion, house demolitions, discriminatory policies as well as the West Bank apartheid wall to swallow up occupied East Jerusalem. The report points out that Israel is undermining the PA's credibility and weakening support for peace talks among Palestinians.

"Israel's actions in and around Jerusalem constitute one of the most acute challenges to Israeli- Palestinian peacemaking," the report said.

The EU report also speaks of a systematic Israeli policy aimed at narrowing Palestinian horizons in East Jerusalem for the purpose of preventing their demographic growth or forcing them to leave their city.

"Israeli 'facts on the ground' including new settlements, construction of the barriers, discriminatory housing policies, house demolitions, restrictive permit regimes and continued closure of Palestinian institutions, increase Jewish Israeli presence in East Jerusalem, weaken the Palestinian community in the city, impede Palestinian urban development and separate East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank," the report added.

Palestinian officials have welcomed the report, calling it "a belated but welcomed recognition of the anti-peace measures Israel has been carrying out" in the Palestinian capital. "We certainly appreciate this report. But it is very important that the Europeans act on it, because without doing so, Israel will just continue doing the same thing," said Hatem Abdel-Qader, a PA official in charge of the Jerusalem portfolio. "Of course, the Europeans won't take an active posture if the Arabs themselves remained silent."

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