September 1 2008
Today's West Bank is a land of shocking contrasts – of one set of rules and rights for Palestinians and another for Jewish settlers.
Palestinian lives are under the absolute control of the Israeli army, which can either seal off communities with roadblocks or invade them at will. The Palestinian economy is being slowly strangled by the separation barrier. Few Palestinians are allowed any longer to seek work inside Israel, and their freedom to move around the West Bank is severely curtailed by hundreds of checkpoints and the need for almost unattainable travel permits.
If West Bank Palestinians are being hemmed into ghettoes, the 500,000 Jewish settlers living alongside them are in a much better position. Their settlements are connected to Israel by motorways that make their work and families inside Israel a simple, quick drive away. Israelis crisscross over the Green Line, the effective border, unaware of where Israel ends and the West Bank begins.
The growth of the settlements, all of which are illegal under international law, was supposed to have been frozen under the terms of the 2003 Road Map, the US-sponsored plan to advance a Palestinian state. But a drive through the West Bank around East Jerusalem reveals a skyline of cranes, rapidly expanding these fortress colonies.
The impression of growth is backed up by the figures. About 2,600 homes are under construction in the settlements, according to the Israeli group Peace Now. Half of them are being built on the far side of Israel's separation barrier, the part of the West Bank Israel is supposedly planning to surrender in a peace agreement.
The work is not being carried=2 0out by rogue operators. Two-thirds of the homes are being built by Israel's housing ministry. And the outlook for Palestinians is even worse: Peace Now reports that tenders for future construction projects in the settlements have risen five-fold on a year ago.
In the United States, Zionist organisations are subsidising the settlement expansion with a frenzy of financial support of their own. A recent survey by the news agency Reuters found that at least 13 American organisations have been claiming charitable status as they have pumped more than US$35 million (Dh129m) into the settlement enterprise over the past five years.
On the third side of the triangle, the settlers themselves are resorting to a familiar tactic: violence against Palestinians, particularly those in more isolated areas that Israel hopes to annex. Palestinians are being beaten, livestock and wells poisoned, harvests stolen or crops burnt, homes stoned and cars set alight.
Cases of settler attacks are reported to have nearly doubled on this time last year, itself a bad year. But arrests are negligible. The Israeli police have admitted to the local media they turn a blind eye. A senior police commander in the West Bank said recently: "Sometimes cops also avoid acting against Jews."
Why the acceleration in lawlessness? The answer is to be found in the so-called peace process.
The most dramatic growth in the settlements occurred in the Oslo years, when Israel doubled the settler population while it was ostensibly engaged in negotiations designed to lead to Palestinian statehood.
Something similar has happened since George W Bush's pledge to Ariel Sharon in 2004 that Israeli "population centres" would remain in place in any future agreement with the Palestinians. Israel has taken this as referring to its "settlement blocs" and is therefore rushing to expand the colonies so that they will be included under the definition of a bloc. The Annapolis conference in November simply underlined to Israel that it must move as fast as possible.
This is the context for the two-state plan unveiled last month by Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli prime minister. Although there is zero chance he will implement the scheme, it shows the general thrust in the Israeli establishment's thinking.
The most important point is that Israel is offering the Palestinians in this deal nothing apart from the ghettoes it has already made of their communities. Negotiations on the necessary capital of a Palestinian state, Jerusalem, as well as transport links between the two "halves" of that state, the West Bank and Gaza, will have to wait until the Fatah leadership takes back control of Gaza from Hamas on terms acceptable to Israel. Not only is such an Israeli dictate inherently anti-democratic, but that day may never arrive.
In the meantime, Israel wants the blessing of the Palestinian leadership – or the Americans – to the annexation of seven per cent of the West Bank, and with it the "settlement blocs". That is not all. Postponement of an agreement on East Jerusalem – for up to five years in Mr Olmert's latest proposal – will open the door to continuing Israeli settlement of the West Bank.
That is because, through boundary changes, Israel has turned Jerusalem into a huge metropolis stretching deep into the West Bank, almost reaching the border with Jordan. Continuing uncertainty about Jerusalem's future would give Israel legitimacy to expand settlements in an area it calls Jerusalem but is in truth a substantial chunk of the West Bank. That land would doubtless be annexed by Israel at a later date.
In addition, Israel is proposing that the Palestinians be allowed no army, while Israel controls all border crossings, maintains soldiers in the Jordan Valley (one-fifth of the West Bank) and keeps military bases and "emergency response units" in other Palestinian areas.
Such a plan – for a non-sovereign, non-contiguous Palestinian state – is entirely unacceptable to the Palestinians. But that barely matters. As long as no agreement is reached, Israel can keep on building. And Israel knows that every new settler home contributes to a future settlement bloc and a little slice less of a Palestinian state.
Jonathan Cook lives in Nazareth, Israel. His book Disappearing Palestine is published this month by Zed Books