Israel's new master plan
Quietly, Israel is preparing the biggest illegal land grab in recent memory, all on Obama's watch, writes Khaled Amayreh in Jerusalem
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Palestinians scavenge gravel from the Rafah runway, destroyed by an Israeli air strike, as cement and other building materials are banned under the Israeli blockade
A few days before his scheduled visit to Washington on 7 July, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appears as deliberately thwarting American efforts to push forward indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
This week, an Israeli government body was set to approve "an unprecedented master plan" for an all-out expansion of Jewish settlements that would effectively -- using the words of one Palestinian official -- "decapitate" East Jerusalem's Arab identity.
The plan would see the building of tens of thousands of Jewish-only apartments in East Jerusalem to be constructed on Arab owned land.
The Jerusalem Municipal Council, controlled by fanatical Jewish radicals advocating ethnic cleansing of non-Jews in the city, is trying to enforce the plan with a discernible green light from the government.
In essence, the plan would leave a zero room for future expansion of Arabs in Jerusalem, as virtually all remaining open space or "green areas" would be used for "Jewish development".
The estimated 270,000 Arab East Jerusalemites are already confined to a mere 13 per cent of East Jerusalem while more than 85 per cent of the city has been seized by Jewish authorities since 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.
According to Palestinian officials, the plan -- if carried out -- constitutes a turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will surely lead to an early and potentially violent collapse of the shaky and uncertain peace process.
"I don't believe that the peace process will withstand the reported plan to expand Jewish settlement in Jerusalem. In fact, the main goal of that plan is to kill any remaining hope for peace," said Ghassan Al-Khatib, a PA spokesman in Ramallah. "This is more than a provocation. It is actually a decapitation of the peace process."
PA President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in Ramallah on 29 June that, "We haven't heard from Israel anything that would encourage us to continue negotiating." "We will see what [US Peace Envoy George] Mitchell is carrying with him. If he has positive answers from the Israelis, then we might agree to switch to direct talks. But we have heard nothing from him that would encourage us to keep up the talks."
Mitchell was due to arrive in Ramallah on Thursday 1 July, the latest Israeli settlement expansion schemes expected to top the agenda of talks with Abbas. Since taking up his position as envoy, Mitchell has visited the region 18 times without achieving any real progress.
Israel officials, including Netanyahu, have carefully refrained from elaborating on the plan. Their reticence appears motivated by the desire not to mar Netanyahu's upcoming visit to Washington.
The Israeli media has reported that the Obama administration is frustrated with the slow pace of the peace process, particularly Israeli-PA proximity talks. Washington is urging both sides to switch to direct talks, though no evidence suggests that moving to direct talks would make any difference.
Netanyahu, too, has been demanding that the PA engage in direct talks. However, it is understood that this is posturing intended to give the false impression that the Palestinians are the ones impeding progress to peace. The Israeli premier may also be aiming to divert attention from the plans to radically expand Jewish settlements following the expiration in September of a largely disingenuous moratorium on settlement expansion adopted under US pressure early this year.
On the other hand, Netanyahu seems convinced that the Obama administration is largely a paper tiger and that the powerful Jewish American lobby will be able to defeat the president in any confrontation over Israel. Netanyahu's calculations in this regard don't seem out of touch with reality. A number of senators and congressmen from both parties have already censured the president for "exerting too much pressure on Israel."
Illustrative of Israel's excessive confidence, this week the Israeli government approved a plan to demolish 22 Arab homes in the Silwan neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. The wanton demolitions are part of a larger plan to destroy hundreds of Arab homes in the densely populated Arab neighbourhood. Israel says it wants to build a Talmudic park and other tourist attractions in the area, to make it more "attractive".
Palestinians in East Jerusalem, already exasperated by unrelenting Israeli efforts to narrow their horizons are threatening an all-out uprising. "I think the Israelis are pushing us into a situation where we have nothing to lose," said H Abu Saud, a long-time resident of the city. "Israel is pushing Jerusalemites to embrace violence. What would you do if you were facing systematic persecution on a daily basis?"