In order that the big picture of its illegal occupation is obscured, Israel purposely overwhelms its adversaries with endless detail, writes Joharah Baker*
in occupied Jerusalem
Israeli political tactics are based on a fundamental premise: disregard the core and delve into the minute details. This way, the basis of any given argument is easily lost -- a pinch here, a dash there. By the end of the hypothetical argument, you are nowhere near your original goal and now, ironically, have 10 items more to negotiate than when you first started.
This is nothing new. In order to stall a final agreement and permanent solution, Israel creates facts on the ground, which then must be negotiated. While this has probably been Israel's tactic from as early on as the occupation of 1967 (or even earlier), it has become most apparent since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. By then, of course, the bulk of Israeli settlements had been built on confiscated Palestinian land, thus solidifying the occupation in more ways than one.
Since then, any bilateral or multilateral talks between Israel, the Palestinians and the world have been a flurry of details about issues secondary to the root cause of the problem, which most would agree is the Israeli occupation. Instead, Palestinians -- who are partially at fault -- found themselves engaged in numbers, kilometres and patches of land for an ostensible "land swap". There has been negotiation upon negotiation over the number of prisoners to be released and the long list of criteria they must meet. We have all heard the numerous and partial proposals for Jerusalem, about this or that neighbourhood or about administration versus sovereignty over Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound, among other truncated solutions.
Today, the focus is on Jewish settlements and Israel's tactic is clearer than ever. Just to put this issue into perspective for the novices among us, there are close to half a million Jewish settlers in approximately 140 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. All of these settlements, without exception, are illegal according to international law given that they are built on occupied land and should thus be dismantled without further dispute. Israel, as the occupying power, is in contravention of international law every time it lays down a single brick in one of these settlements, because it is prohibited from building on, or altering in any way, occupied territory.
This goes for Jerusalem too. While West Jerusalem became part of Israel after the 1948 War, East Jerusalem was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war and subsequently annexed unilaterally in that same year. Nonetheless, this annexation was never recognised by the world, even the United States, which at least in theory still views East Jerusalem as occupied.
Hence, the battle should have been well defined from the start. If Israel wants any peaceful solution, if it wants recognition as a state among states in this region, it must abide by international law.
This never came to pass, as we all know. Today, instead of talking about a complete dismantlement of illegal settlements and outposts on occupied Palestinian land, we are talking about the tiniest of details. First, there is no talk of "dismantling" settlements but rather of "freezing" construction in already existing ones. If that were not ridiculous enough, Israel is now haggling over what a freeze would entail. Certainly not construction to accommodate natural growth, its officials say. It would be wrong to deprive settlers of their right to live "a normal life", according to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Rather, the premier said he could only commit to not building or expanding new settlements. Isn't building for natural growth a form of expansion?
The point is, the battle has been shifted from arguing the clear cut point that settlements are illegal and should be removed, to freezing settlements, removing "illegal outposts" and haggling over what kind of construction is allowed. Take, for example, the latest news. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak is to arrive in Washington, reportedly to smooth out any feathers that may have been ruffled as a result of Israel's refusal to freeze all settlement construction in accordance with new US calls. President Barack Obama explicitly demanded that Israel halt construction in settlements ahead of any restarted peace talks, a demand Israel has clearly not accepted. With Israel's refusal facing off with Obama's insistence, Israel is trying to devise an avoidance plan that would quiet America's grumblings.
According to the Israeli media, Barak plans to offer the US one of two things: either to agree to a temporary complete settlement freeze, or the limiting of building in settlement blocs to high-rise construction only. Neither holds any real meaning. A "temporary" freeze is just that, temporary, which implies that later on down the line Israel will not be obliged to maintain this offer and will resume construction. The second has to do with mumbo-jumbo about high-rise construction. Apartment buildings cannot be high-rise? Business centres? Hotels? Where is the logic in this?
There is no logic. There is only Israel's evasion of the real issue: that these settlements, no matter which way you slice it, are illegal and have no business being on Palestinian land.
What makes matters worse, Israel is already snubbing President Obama's call before even its defence minister sets foot on US soil. On 29 June, Israeli authorities announced that 50 new homes would be built in the Adam settlement in the Ramallah area as part of an overall plan to build 1,450 homes for settlers who will be evacuated from the "illegal settlement outpost" of Migron.
While Israel clearly deserves the lion's share of blame in this, the Palestinians are not blameless. We have played our part in allowing Israel to exploit euphemisms such as "communities" for "settlements" or "disputed areas" instead of "occupation". With the Oslo Accords, we compartmentalised the Palestinian cause into a hundred little categories, each with its own set of stipulations, exceptions and wiggle room. Our demands have been eroded as a result. Yes, we still call for a Palestinian state on lands occupied in 1967, but in practical terms we continue to bargain over land percentages, over the number of Palestinian police, over the opening of Gaza borders, and countless other issues. Since it clearly works, this has become Israel's modus operandi for anything related to the conflict. Get lost in the details and further push back any tackling of the main issues.
This is a dangerous path. In Jerusalem, Israeli authorities have handed out hundreds of demolition orders to Palestinian residents of the city in the past few months. When protests over this policy rose louder than the usual whimper, Israel saved face yet again with Jerusalem's mayor announcing he would freeze 70 per cent of the orders. There is that word again: "freeze". It is an uncomfortable word that implies minimum and temporary reprieve. It is not a solution, it is a diversion from the real problems in the city, which are the discriminatory policies that Israel metes out against its Palestinian residents in a bid to force them out altogether.
The Palestinians should hold their ground, not in the minute details designed to divert attention away from the problem but on the problem itself -- eradicating Israel's occupation.
* The writer works for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH).