By Seema Sirohi
14 Sep 2009
JERUSALEM: It is no surprise that President Barack Obama has asked for a complete freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem as proof of Israel's sincerity to restart the moribund peace process. Equally unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dug in his heels and made no clear commitment.
The question of settlements goes to the heart of the issue who has the right to live where and why. The settlements are deemed illegal under US policy, UN resolutions and international law and Palestinians obviously demand they be dismantled. But in Israel there is ambivalence and an entirely separate vocabulary to handle this hot potato. Using the Bible as a diplomatic hammer and occupation as cover, Israel over decades has allowed the slow but sure expansion of Jewish settlements in what the world hopes would be the future state of Palestine. Israel does not want to reverse a policy that bolsters its diplomatic muscle, effectively increases its land mass and pushes the Palestinians to fight for a smaller and smaller state. It is war by other means.
With overt and covert assistance from the state, Jewish settlements have sprouted in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, protected by an elaborate and confusing bureaucratic web of policies and controversial court decisions. The sprawling, concrete apartment blocs, complete with schools and shopping centres, stand on land snatched by a variety of means discriminatory laws, subterfuge, subsidies, pure muscle and intimidation. There is nothing transitory about them. Israel supplies water and electricity, builds roads and parks and engages with them as if they were legal entities. The Jewish blogosphere offers daily justifications ranging from the obvious to the obscure.
More than 3,00,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank in 121 settlements while nearly 2,00,000 occupy parts of East Jerusalem, the supposed future capital of Palestine. The number includes economic settlers who find lower rents helpful. Just over the past month, Netanyahu's government presided over the eviction of Palestinian families from an East Jerusalem neighbourhood with support from the Israeli Supreme Court and handed over an old hotel building to settlers.
Israeli courts routinely support Jewish claims on property going back to the Ottomon days but dismiss Palestinian tenancy rights. Since 1967, when Israel got control of East Jerusalem, it has expropriated 35 per cent of the land and built 50,000 housing units for Jews and only 600 for the Palestinians. For the record, most Palestinians can't buy property in the Jewish West Jerusalem but they can watch East Jerusalem slowly slip away.
Pressure from Washington and the many admirers and friends of Israel seems ineffective against the runaway train the settler movement has become today. It fuses romance, religion and illogic into a dangerous mix, creating a cocktail that can intoxicate both the young and old. The settlers cite the Bible as their proof (some Israeli diplomats do too, for that matter), refer to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria and feel they have the divine right to all the land. Intervening events and peoples are but a nuisance, an irrelevant abomination. Awash in this craziness, teenage boys establish "frontier outposts" in the West Bank hilltops which over time are legitimised into settlements.
Good negotiators the Israelis are, they have clogged the Americans in legalisms and detail. True, facing down the settlers is a huge political challenge for any Israeli government but it has been done in the past. Ariel Sharon as prime minister dismantled 21 settlements with 8,000 people in 2005 in the Gaza Strip. Resistance from the settlers was manageable.
Today, the militant settlers have put a "price tag" on eviction. Any time an "outpost" of temporary structures is destroyed by the Israeli military, young settler boys go on the rampage against Palestinians, stoning their cars, burning their fields and smashing their windows. After a few days, they come back and rebuild their post. It is "settler Zionism", a far cry from the original Zionism, which was socialist and secular. And once the militants were just a few dozen but now they number in the hundreds and are backed by rabbis and political leaders. Any comprehensive peace deal will most likely incorporate the large settlement blocs closer to Jerusalem into Israel in exchange for land for the Palestinians elsewhere because evicting so many thousands would spell political disaster.
But the hardcore settler leaders oppose any such exchange because they actively want to prevent a viable, contiguous Palestinian state with their mosaic of housing, roads, industrial parks and security zones that criss-crosses through the West Bank. Young families, many of them ultra-orthodox and frontrunners in the demographic war against the Palestinians, are in alliance. Many Israelis who live in the settlements and have grown up there don't necessarily identify with the movement but consider life in the settlements "normal".
Controlling the settlers is not only imperative for peace but also for the kind of society Israel wants to be. If the militant margins determine politics and the future of the peace process, how can Israel claim to be superior to its interlocutors?
The writer is a senior journalist.