Monday 22 February 2010

Israeli Settlements Freeze! Surely you must be joking

Construction in Israel’s illegal settlements across the West Bank is continuing. That’sthe conclusion of Peace Now, an Israeli non-governmental Organisation [NGO], which has been monitoring settlement activities for years. The report by the Israeli NGO documents construction going on even at nights and on Saturdays, the Jewish Day of rest.
But wait a minute. Doesn’t the Israeli government have a so-called temporary freeze on settlement expansion in the Occupied Territory? Sure it does. These, says the Israeli ministry of defence, which provides settlements with protection, infrastructure, and free services, are ‘violations’. In fact, Israel officially and publicly admits to 28 settlements where these ‘violations’ are taking place. Peace Now puts the number at 33. Both numbers exclude the unprecedented rate of Israeli settlement expansion in Occupied East Jerusalem.
The crew and I went on a drive from Ramallah heading south to Bethlehem, trying to document for ourselves these ‘violations’. They were not hard to spot… As we approached Bethlehem, we sneak close to Nikodim, one of the cited violators. It’s the home of Israel’s minister of foreign, Avigdor Lieberman. There, construction was happening with much ease… After all, the country’s top diplomat is not only a resident in this settlement, which international law considers illegal; he is an ardent supporter of building yet more settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
Everywhere we looked, we found billboards advertising new homes for prospective settlers – most of them have not been built yet. But they are tempting. Israeli government incentives make it much cheaper for the average Israeli to buy a house in one of the dozens of illegal settlements across the West Bank and in occupied East Jerusalem.
Close by in Bitar Ellit, also built on Palestinian land in Bethlehem, we documented ‘violations’ left and right. When a settler guard cited us snooping around, he called the Israeli military. We took off of course but the question that begs answering here is: If the Israeli army, which ironically grants construction permits in settlements, considers these actions to be violating the government’s moratorium, why isn’t it stopping them?
Aware of the Peace Now report, Palestinians are shaking their head, telling anyone in the international community who would listen, ‘we told you so’.
I went to see Dr Jad Ishaq, who heads the Applied Research Institute – one of Palestine’s most reputable research organisations. He told me it’s the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who should provide Palestinians with an explanation now. “Clinton should come to the West Bank and take a tour; see for herself the effects of what she called an unprecedented step for peace”.
That’s because back in November, the US Secretary of State told Palestinians the Israeli government had taken an ‘unprecedented step’ after the ‘moratorium’ announcement. She also instructed them to go back to negotiations with Israel’s rightwing government because according to her, a settlement freeze was not a precondition to negotiations. Of course, this statement ignored the international roadmap for peace, drafted by the previous American administration, which clearly states such a freeze is top among Israel’s immediate obligations.
Clinton’s reaction and pressure on Palestinians angered them greatly. Palestinians countered by saying the Israeli announcement was nothing but a sham. And the Palestinian public has so far been very pleased with the Palestinian President’s refusal to succumb to the pressure. In fact, this is one of the few points on which the occupied and split Palestinian nation now agree.
Israel's so-called moratorium excluded the occupied East Jerusalem and allowed for the construction of thousands of structures inside the West Bank. The offer also ignored international law, which considers all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to be illegal – null and void.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave an advisory ruling on Israel’s wall, which de facto annex these settlements, their infrastructure, and Israeli only roads. The ICJ deemed the wall and the settlement regime illegal. Incidentally, this Wall devours approximately 30 per cent of the West Bank, including some of its most fertile lands and its most important water resources.
Some Palestinians may find comfort that their plight against Israel’s colonisation is on the right side of International law. Their dismay, however, is growing as they are coming to conclude that the international community is either oblivious to the facts these bulldozers are creating on the Occupied Palestinian homeland or unwilling to take a real stance that bring them to a halt. Either way, Palestinians have seldom felt more alone - forced to fight for the dream of statehood in their homeland, inch by inch.

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