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Continued Israeli Settlement Policy in the Occupied Territories

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • April 19, 2016

    It appears that there is no perceptible change in Israel`s policy on Jewish settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank of River Jordan and eastern Jerusalem. `Peace Now`, an Israeli settlement watchdog, has reported that the Israel government has given the `go-ahead` for at least 229 new units (homes), which are in various stages of construction. Furthermore, the watchdog has indicated that the number of West Bank settlements that Israel plans to build more than tripled in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period last year. The Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, however, denied the claim, stating that all the approvals involve ``upgrading existing structures`` and are not new constructions. The government`s version is that only settlement units sanctioned earlier are being completed with necessary technical approvals for execution. Israel`s Ministry of Construction and Housing has tried to rebut the claim of enhanced settlement sanctions by stating that the plans date back to 2012-13, for which some outstanding construction related payments for design were released in 2015-16, and construction of only 1200 units, earlier vetoed by Netanyahu, has now started. Though there is no clarity on the precise figure of the new sanctions accorded in the last few months, the trend, as reported by different sources (including Israel`s Central Bureau of Statistics), seem to indicate an increase in the number of new settlement units as well as a stepping up of the pace of execution.

    Information from the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories has also attested to the fact that the number of settlers in the West Bank settlements and outposts including in east Jerusalem, within Hebron, in settlement outposts and settler enclaves in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods has been increasing. The Centre has reported an increase in the number of settlers from 547,000 at the end of 2013 to nearly 600,000 now, inter-alia indicating that the Israeli government has been encouraging a settler population growth which is nearly 2.5 times the overall growth rate i.e., 4.4 per cent in the settlements vis-à-vis 1.9 per cent in Israel as a whole.

    Furthermore, as per reports disseminated by `Peace Now` and also available in the public domain, a highly contentious decision has been taken by the Netanyahu government towards approving the preparation for construction blueprints of 8372 Jewish settlement units (homes) in a sensitive zone designated as `E-1`. The 8372 units are part of a total block of 55,548 units in the West Bank, for which the Ministry of Construction and Housing has recently given clearance for preparation of blueprints. The `E-1` zone is adjacent to a major Israeli Jewish settlement (Ma`ala Adumin`) and will serve as a buffer to east Jerusalem, literally dividing the West Bank and thereby hurting the possibility of a future Palestine state in the West Bank subsuming similar ethno-cultural areas in east Jerusalem and the Palestinian dominated West Bank. Israel`s settlements plans in `E-1` zone have always drawn special attention of the United Nations (UN), United States of America (USA) and the European Union. In the above-mentioned backdrop, it is noteworthy that the Palestine National Authority`s President, Mahmoud Abbas, is planning to initiate a move for an United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution to condemn Israel`s settlement policy, when he visits New York to sign a landmark agreement on climate change, at the end of this month.

    Irrespective of whichever party`s government is in power in Israel, governments in Tel-Aviv have persisted with the drive to settle more and more Israeli Jews in the above-mentioned territories occupied by it consequent on the Arab-Israel conflict of 1967. The only exception was when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon`s Likud Party government carried out a major dismantlement of 21 settlements in Gaza (the only one of such magnitude) in August-September 2005. Netanyahu may, however, be considered as the most steadfast in promoting and establishing the settlements. During Netanyahu`s first term (1996-1999) as Prime Minister of the right-wing Likud Party government, on an average 3000 settlement units were sanctioned per year. During his second term (2009-2014) when he led a national unity government, the rate was 1500 units per year, and in October 2015 when Netanyahu was heading a Likud Party government (supported by a few minor parties viz. Kulanu and others), 2200 units were sanctioned. The above-cited recently approved settlement units in the sensitive `E-1` zone in the West Bank seem to support such an assessment.

    The ground reality is that settler driven entrenchment of different Israeli governments over the past more-than-a- decade, particularly in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, has gone too far. The entrenchment is being consolidated and has reached a point where no peaceful assimilation of the entire West Bank into a compact territory of a future Palestine state, and a harmonious division of Jerusalem city linked to this entity may be possible. While the official stand of the Netanyahu government is for acceptance of a demilitarized Palestine state in exchange for the Palestinians` guaranteed acceptance of the state of Israel, there is no countervailing Israeli government commitment for an integrated state of Palestine with West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza subsumed within it, and free of Israeli settlements, outposts and enclaves.

    The only country which could have effectively influenced the Israeli government to modify, halt and eventually abandon its settlement policy is the USA, reckoning its status as a major power, permanent veto-wielding member of the UNSC and the politico-cultural ties-cum-affinity between a substantial segment of its people and the Jewish state and the latter`s citizens. However, at this juncture, this seems unlikely. This is because organisations like the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – a strong pro-Israel Jewish lobby in the USA – continue to exert considerable influence in the latter`s domestic and foreign policies for countering the international pressure on the government in Tel-Aviv vis-a-vis its settlement policy. The influence of AIPAC can be gauged from the fact that, in the course of the present presidential election campaign, all the major candidates except Bernard Sanders have articulated pro-Israel views through this forum. Furthermore, considerable tax-exempt money continue to flow to the Israeli Jewish settlements from nearly 50 organizations in the USA, as so-called charitable non-profits. Between 2009 and 2013 (the period of Netanyahu`s second government), USD 220 million of such funds had been transferred to the settlements. In this backdrop, it is unlikely that President Obama`s administration would take a stand on the settlement issue to pressure Israel or take a position that is even marginally variant from the positions of previous administrations, whenever the Palestine issue comes up before the UN and the UNSC.

    The PNA and President Abbas is expected to push for a UNSC Resolution calling for the immediate resumption of negotiations between Israel and Palestine, with a deadline to complete the process within a year. It is also understood that the Resolution will enjoin on the PNA and Israel to reach a final status arrangement based on the principle of two-states, declaration of settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace and condemn continued Israeli construction in occupied territories as well as action to change demographic balance in these areas. In the context of the Netanyahu government`s present policy, and the present dynamics of USA`s internal politics, it is likely that the proposed Resolution will attract strong opposition from Tel-Aviv and Washington. The USA had blocked three earlier moves in the UN on the Palestine issue to press for a time-bound solution and a freeze on the settlements, and had also vetoed a Resolution in 2011. It is unlikely that international pressure, within and outside the UN, will induce the Netanyahu government to tone down its settlement policy as is being de-facto practiced on the ground. The only hope for the Palestinians may lie in the activation of the human rights and liberal left-wing citizens groups within Israel, some of which seem to be reasonably active, to build up pressure on the militant Zionist elements conjointly with liberal counterparts in the European Union.

    The author is a retired IDAS officer, a former Additional Controller General of Defence Accounts of Government of India and Adviser to a State Government.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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