At the very heart of the roadmap phase I issues that dominated US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit a week ago are security and settlements. The West Bank-based Palestinian leadership that Israel is negotiating with has little to brag about in terms of improving security. But at least it is sincerely trying. The Olmert government is not trying as hard, particularly with regard to settlements. And settlements are the biggest impediment to security.
On the occasion of Rice's visit, Defense Minister Ehud Barak yielded to American pressure and offered a series of modest security concessions. These included the deployment of 25 Palestinian security force APCs in the West Bank and of some 700 Palestinian policemen in Jenin, the removal of a checkpoint near Rimonim east of Ramallah and the opening of 50 earth roadblocks preventing transportation between villages and main roads. These represent the minimum that Barak apparently believes the IDF can implement without risking security damage.
Looked at in terms of the security status quo, Barak's and the IDF's hesitations are understandable. Take Nablus (biblical Shechem), a city of close to 200,000 that is controlled largely by Hamas and is considered the West Bank's biggest terrorism base, with bomb factories rooted deep in the subterranean warrens of the old Roman city and the city's four refugee camps. Because it is set amid high and imposing hills, a few checkpoints enable the IDF to control vehicular and nearly all pedestrian traffic into and out of the city. Vehicles using mountain paths to try to bypass the checkpoints are fairly easily spotted by lookouts and patrols. So high is the terrorist alert around Nablus that even every pedestrian leaving town is checked for ID and by a metal detector--whereas pedestrians leaving Qalqilya, another Hamas-controlled city that borders on the green line, are not checked.
The IDF officers in charge of the checkpoints around Nablus and other Palestinian towns in the West Bank are fully aware of the huge international controversy that surrounds the checkpoints and roadblocks they maintain. They are also proud of their excellent record in intercepting terrorists headed for Israel proper and are loath to jeopardize it by reducing the network of security barriers that they believe, when coupled with highly sophisticated intelligence, does the job. They realistically recognize that the checkpoint system is so demoralizing to the population that it creates new terrorists. But they believe it helps eliminate an even larger number. And they and the Israeli public recognize that a series of suicide bombings inside Israel, which almost certainly would trace their origins to Nablus, would totally unravel the modest accomplishments of the peace process thus far.
What, then, can be done to reduce the disastrous effect of checkpoints on Palestinian lives, freedom of movement and commerce? The introduction of technological improvements like biometric identity checks is beginning to speed checkpoint passage and ease the humanitarian burden imposed by Israel's restrictions. The deployment of Palestinian police in Nablus and, soon, Jenin, can improve the security atmosphere, though the IDF is convinced they will fight crime but not terrorism. And the IDF should consider replacing particularly intrusive checkpoints like Hawara south of Nablus, which blocks the all-important route 60 to Ramallah, with teams erecting mobile checkpoints at will, as a number of security experts have recently proposed.
But the biggest impediment to removing or streamlining the checkpoints and roadblocks has nothing to do with the IDF. The settlements are far and away the primary factor keeping all those checkpoints and roadblocks in existence and hindering the Palestinian and international effort to develop a viable West Bank economy and polity. According to senior IDF officers, some 50 percent of all terrorism in the West Bank is directed against the settler presence beyond the security barrier. Further, the weakest element in the entire West Bank security network is settler commuter traffic passing through security barrier passages to and from jobs inside Israel proper. There is no way the IDF can seriously check the thousands of Israeli-licensed cars making this trip daily; any driver of such a car, whether Israeli Arab or Jew, can transport illegal workers into Israel almost at will. Among these workers there is eventually and inevitably a terrorist or two.
In other words, removal of the settlements beyond the security fence and completion of that fence (which has been delayed precisely because of settlements) would make the IDF's security task dramatically easier and render many of the checkpoints and roadblocks superfluous. Until that happens, Barak and the IDF establishment will fight tooth and nail to maintain the present West Bank security network in place.
It all boils down to the settlements. Here, rather than fulfilling its international obligations to cease settlement construction and dismantle outposts or unauthorized settlements, the Olmert government is caught in the familiar pattern of maintaining the very coalition stability that is ostensibly required in order to move ahead with the peace process by fueling the settlement dynamic that obstructs and sabotages a two-state solution.
There can be no better demonstration of the futility of the current peace process than the Olmert government's failure to begin seriously rolling back the settlement movement. Given Olmert's clear understanding that the settlers' excesses constitute a genuine danger to Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, this is in many ways even more troubling than Palestinian leadership and security failings and the absence of a genuine American commitment to this process.- Published 7/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org
There would appear to be two strands of interaction between Palestinians and Israelis in the current negotiations process. One deals with final status issues and involves the top political leadership on both sides, Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei and Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. The other deals with day-to-day practicalities and is led by Salam Fayyad and Ehud Barak.
Last week's visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice resulted in all parties proclaiming progress on a number of issues. But those statements only served to leave the Palestinian public bemused. At the same time as these positive statements were made, the Israeli Peace Now organization released a settlement watch report that showed that construction and expansion of 101 illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem was continuing apace.
The Peace Now report was well documented and carefully researched. It left little room for doubt. It also asserted that as well as "normal" settlements, construction and expansion of settlement outposts--which the Israeli government itself considers illegal and has committed to remove--continues. The expansions undertaken include an increase in the number of housing units, more and better infrastructure and an increase, in some cases, in the expanse of the settlements and the number of settlers.
For a cynical, tired and battered Palestinian public there is one measure above all with which to assess progress in negotiations: what happens in Israeli settlements. Palestinians understand well that all the many different kinds of collective punishment that Israel imposes on them are a direct outcome of two distinct Israeli objectives: the number and spread of settlements and the desire to control the occupied territories.
For as long as construction in and expansion of settlements continue, Palestinians know that there is no real progress in negotiations and there will be no real let-up in the measures Israel uses to control their movement, i.e., the many checkpoints and barriers dotted around them. On the contrary, settlement expansions generally mean tighter "security" measures and more restrictions as Israel seeks to consolidate its control.
Thus Israeli "gestures" like those trumpeted last week come to mean nothing in the general assessment of Palestinians (in addition to Israeli peace activists). There are still hundreds of checkpoints and hundreds of thousands of settlers. Meanwhile, it took a lot of effort to pinpoint even one of the checkpoints or roadblocks Israel claims to have removed.
Making gestures is not illegitimate. But there is great danger in making gestures that have no impact on peoples' lives. Such gestures simply serve to erode the credibility and the public standing of those involved in negotiations on the Palestinian side. At the same time they make life easy for groups like Hamas who stand ready to exploit empty words that only serve to prove their arguments.
Hamas claims that the Palestinian leadership's dogged pursuit of negotiations will not attain the legitimate and internationally enshrined rights of the Palestinian people to freedom, independence and statehood. The equally dogged determination by Israel to continue the settlement peace bypass project--unabated and in spite of international legality and its own stated commitments--simply bolsters that argument.- Published 7/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Settlement bloc expansion is the most destructive
by Yariv Oppenheimer
Recently, the Israeli and international media has featured reports on progress in peace negotiations. Chief negotiators Ahmed Qurei and Tzippi Livni maintain silence about the details, but allow that the talks are ongoing, detailed and purposeful. Now of all times, when the core issues never before discussed appear to be on the agenda, the negotiating theater seems to be infinitely distant from the reality unfolding on the ground.
While the negotiating teams are discussing the ways and principles for partitioning the Land of Israel, the reality on the ground makes it increasingly difficult to establish a sovereign Palestinian state. From week to week, there are more voices on both sides arguing that it has become physically impossible to remove the West Bank settlements and that accordingly the two-state solution is history. The original goal of the settler leaders to prevent any future national leadership from dividing the land is closer than ever to fruition, as the settlements continue to spread.
Like its predecessors, the Olmert government is operating in two contradictory directions: on the one hand it issues declarations regarding the existential need to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but on the other, it approves more construction beyond the green line, particularly the expansion of existing settlements.
This pattern is repeated especially when Israeli governments decide to advance courageously toward a political settlement. It is then, perhaps stemming from a desire to placate right-wing protests, that the government decides to move ahead with construction plans and alter the lay of the land almost irreversibly.
The codename that legitimizes every act of expanding existing settlements and establishing new ones is the broad concept of "settlement blocs". As if in recognition of a fait accompli, government spokespersons justify every new initiative to build in the territories with the excuse that the areas involved are settlement blocs that in any event will come under future Israeli sovereignty.
During the first three months of 2008, at the height of the Annapolis process, construction took place in 101 West Bank settlements; about 500 structures, comprising thousands of housing units, are currently being built. New construction plans were approved by the government to build a new neighborhood at Agan Haayalot next to Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem. Tenders were released for the construction of 750 units in East Jerusalem. The regional planning commission approved submission of construction plans for 3,600 additional units in East Jerusalem. Most of these new construction plans are intended for empty areas located adjacent to Palestinian villages and neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city.
In contrast to the pronouncements of official spokespersons, the ramifications of additional construction in the settlement blocs are often more destructive than expansion of isolated settlements in the West Bank heartland. While construction in the isolated settlements is usually limited in scope and in any case destined for eventual removal, the "settlement bloc" concept is a green light for building thousands of housing units near the borderline, in areas where the chances of reaching agreement to evacuate settlements are slim. Removal of settlements like Ofra, Bet El and Har Bracha, which are located deep inside Palestinian territory in the mountain heartland, will enjoy far broader public support than removal of communities inside the settlement blocs, like Maaleh Adumim, Betar Illit and the Etzion settlements.
Moreover, Palestinian agreement to leaving part of the settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty within the framework of a peace agreement is conditioned on territorial swaps, meaning transfer of Israeli sovereign territory to the Palestinian state. Every built-up acre in the settlement blocs constitutes an additional, complicated problem area when it comes to determining the future borders of the two states.
The settlement of Modiin Illit, which in early March was declared a full-fledged municipality, offers an excellent example of the way Israeli governments have obliterated the green line and de facto annexed territory while simultaneously proceeding with peace negotiations. In 1993 when the Oslo accord was signed, the land adjacent to the Palestinian village of Bil'in was empty. Yet within three years, even as a process unfolded whereby Israel recognized the right of the Palestinian people to a state in the West Bank, construction began on the Modiin Illit settlement to provide housing solutions for the ultra orthodox sector. Today, this settlement comprises 37,500 residents. Plans are advancing to expand it deeper into the West Bank; just this week two new enlargement plans were released.
The settlement construction dynamic, including in East Jerusalem and the blocs adjacent to the green line, should first and foremost concern the Israeli mainstream that aspires to separate from the Palestinians within the framework of a two-state solution. The consistent policy of expanding settlements renders the two-state vision that much more distant and is maneuvering Israel and the Palestinians into a situation where both will have to coexist in a single bi-national state.- Published 7/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yariv Oppenheimer is general director of Peace Now.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Negotiating... or just talking?
by Issa Samander
Assad is a farmer from a small village near the northern West Bank town of Tulkarm. The family concern has done well over the years, producing some 12,500 liters of olive oil and three tons of almonds and other produce a year. It has been enough to establish Assad's family in the middle class and pay for all his children to attend university.
But this year, Assad's family had to buy olive oil for domestic consumption. Why? Assad's land, in the illegally Israeli-occupied West Bank, is on the wrong side of Israel's illegally built wall. He is unable to harvest and unable to reap. His livelihood is devastated through no fault of his own.
Assad is neither unique nor special. His fate is the fate of thousands of Palestinian farmers who greet every statement about progress in negotiations with disdain. They know, we all know, that what is said on the news simply does not reflect what happens on the ground.
So why, when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in town, say it? Why talk of progress when we see ourselves and read about the never-ending expansion of settlements, when we can't get to work in the morning for roadblocks and checkpoints and when we can't reach our lands for walls and barbed wire. Why talk of peace? Peace does not consist of a signed document. Peace, here, can only mean an end to occupation.
The illegal Jewish settlements in occupied territory are the first and foremost signifier of occupation. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has proven beyond doubt, ever since this round of negotiations began at Annapolis in November last year, that he is the champion of the settlement enterprise. He has, without shame, stood before the cameras and said as much. His words have been borne out in the recent report by the Israeli organization Peace Now. Olmert is expanding settlements across occupied territory.
Talk of removing "dirt mounds" in areas no one has ever heard of only rubs salt into a festering wound. Talk of gestures that affect no one and relieve no suffering does not appease but provokes. Talk of deploying Palestinian security forces that are under express instructions not to confront the greatest threat to Palestinian lives and livelihoods, the Israeli occupation, does not comfort but enflames, especially when Palestinian security accomplishments in Nablus are undermined at the same time.
So how is it these politicians--American, Israeli as well as Palestinian--can stand before the cameras and smile and talk about progress? Do they actually believe that Palestinians--farmers, students, ambulance drivers, business people, young or old--are fooled for even one second? And if they don't, do they believe their empty words carry no consequences?
The proof is in the pudding. When we no longer see Israeli bulldozers digging up our land we may believe there is progress. When we can bring our produce to the market without begging permission from the Israeli army, then we may believe there is progress. When we can attend our places of worship, our schools, our hospitals, visit our relatives and travel to neighboring towns and villages without waiting for permission from teenage soldiers in the middle of nowhere, then we may believe there is progress. When we see those nice red-roofed houses that have spread like a cancer across our hilltops start being taken down rather than put up, then we may believe there is progress.
We are a simple people, mostly farmers. We hear promises from the high and mighty and we remember that we've heard them before. We remember even better that they never brought us anything. We have long memories, like the trees we plant and they uproot.
Peace will start when the occupation ends. It really is that simple. And until the powers that be in Washington really understand this, negotiations will remain just talk. We need to ensure at the beginning of negotiations that the occupation ends. Then peace can be made between states. An occupied people cannot make peace with its occupier- Published 7/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Issa Samandar is coordinator with the Land Defense General Committees, a grassroots organization that helps Palestinian farmers appeal land confiscations.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.