Israel continues illegal settlement building

Last November, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that his government would be implementing a 10 month “settlement freeze” as a supposed concession to calls by US President Barack Obama for a halt to the construction of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) so as to clear the way for a resumption of “peace” talks with the Palestinian Authority.

Construction of such settlements are illegal under international law because they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, on protection of civilians in time of war. That document, adopted in 1949, specifies that the “Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”. In May 28, 2009, Obama told Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas that his administration would press Israel to meet its obligations under a 2003 “road map for peace” endorsed by the UN, the US, the European Union and Russia, which included stopping the construction of new settlements and the expansion of existing settlements, which by that time housed close to 500,000 Israeli citizens in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.

According to a Settlement Watch report published in February 2010 by the Israeli Peace Now group there have been repeated violations of the supposed settlement freeze announced by Netanyahi. The report noted that in response to a parliamentary question, “Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai admitted that 29 settlements [had] breached the settlement freeze order”. Peace Now noted that it had recorded at least another five settlements carrying out construction work. Peace Now, as well as international human rights organisations, such as the International Women’s Peace Service, which is located in the OPT, also noted that much of the illegal settlement activity was carried out under the cover of darkness.

Veteran Israeli journalist, Akiva Eldar, similarly noted his January 26 Tel Aviv Haaretz column that settlement construction had proceeded with little hindrance since Netanyahu announced the freeze. According to Eldar, “Two months after the government decision on November 26 to freeze construction in Jewish settlements for 10 months, you’d have to be blind, an idiot, or a member of the Yesha Council of settlements to use the term ‘freeze’ to describe the real estate situation in Judea and Samaria” (the Zionists’ name for the West Bank). Eldar went onto note that two days earlier, Netanyahu had planted a tree in the illegal Israeli settler-colony of Gush Etzion and promised to plant more trees in the illegal Ariel settlement block. Eldar pointed out that “in the case of Ariel, Netanyahu kept his word even before he gave it; as he was speaking yellow bulldozers were feverishly working on a new site for Ariel’s industrial zone”.

PA backdown imminent

Despite evidence that Israel has failed to halt settlement construction, the PA President Abbas and his unelected prime minister, Salam Fayyad, have made a number of public statements in recent weeks that indicate they are willing to succumb to pressure from Washington to resume the failed “peace” negotiations. On February 8, Haaretz reported that reliable sources in the PA had told it that Abbas had agreed to start “proximity” talks with Israel by the end of February. Such talks would mean that Israeli and Palestinian official negotiators would not meet face to face, but instead would engage in indirect talks with US officials acting as go-betweens.

Despite denials by Fatah and PA representatives that Abbas is prepared to renege on his previous stance that the PA would not engage with Israel until Netanyahu fully enacted a settlement freeze, Abbas has made a number of statements that indicate that he is prepared to return to the negotiating table without any preconditions. Thus, on February 9, while in Toyko, Abbas told the international news media that the “Palestinian side has not set any conditions in particular”, when he asked under what conditions he would accept the US proposal for “proximity” talks with Israel.

The failure of the PA to set any conditions on a return to negotiations, either direct or indirect, was also highlighted the previous day when Abbas’ unelected PA foreign minister, Riyad al Malki, made no mention of conditions when discussing the possibility of proximity talks. Instead, he stated that such talks should simply focus on border issues and be limited to a four-month framework. In its February 11-17 edition, the Egyptian weekly, Al Ahram, argued that “Abbas wants to use the ‘indirect talks’ in order to be able to claim that he is still clinging to his earlier stance, which precludes any resumption of talks in the absence of a definitive freeze in Jewish settlement expansion”.

Al Ahram went on to correctly note that “Abbas’s willingness to resume the talks with Israel as Israel expands the pace of settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank constitutes a clear retreat and a de facto admission of weakness and defeat” by the PA. According to Ahmed Hamdan, an independent Palestinian political commentator quoted in the Al Ahram article, “This serious retreat sends a dangerous message to the Americans and the Zionists which states that the Palestinian side can be bullied into making more and more concessions on the fundamental issues, and that when the Palestinians say ‘no’ it doesn’t mean that this is their final position.” This message was being heard loud and clear by the Netanyahu government. In an interview with Haaretz, published on February 22, Netanyahu told journalist Ari Shavit that he believed that the Palestinians “may be backing down” as there was “signs that negotiations with them will begin in the foreseeable future”.

Fayyad’s ‘economic peace’ policies

Abbas’ imminent back down and return to the failed peace negotiations will do little to advance the Palestinian struggle for national sovereignty. Instead his retreat, along with the economic policies currently being pushed by the Fayyad-led PA, will simply result in a deepening entrenchment of Israel’s illegal occupation in the West Bank. With the endorsement of Israel, the US and the EU, over the past year Fayyad has sought to implement a policy that reflects the call by Netanyahu in June 2009 to create an “economic peace”, while allowing Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian lands to continue unabated.

In a February 10 article on the Electronic Intifada website, Ziyaad Lunat noted that Fayyad’s economic policies were resulting in “a division being fostered between the urban and the rural populations. The Palestinians living in the 60 percent of the West Bank officially controlled by Israel, also known as Area C, are continuously dispossessed of their land and gradually being pushed to PA-controlled enclaves. The almost exclusive focus of Fayyad’s plan on the service sector, while ignoring the farming community, will inadvertently lead to acceleration of desertification of the rural areas as the young are pulled to new jobs in the city. The Bantustanization process is accelerating with the construction of Israel’s apartheid wall. The rural population, represented by the popular committees, is now leading resistance against Israel’s encroachment. They have been left without effective political representation, finding themselves in the front line of Israel’s annexationist policies. These two dichotomous realities, the urban and the rural, have left certain sectors of the population in urban centers like Ramallah to be completely oblivious to these struggles only a few miles away.”

Furthermore, the Abbas-Fayyad-led PA security forces are assisting tighter control by Israel of the West Bank. Rather than opposing Israel’s occupation, the primary role of the PA security forces today is ensure that any resistance to Israel’s occupation is squashed. In a February 13 article in Haaretz, Professor Sari Nusseibeh, president of Jerusalem’s Al Quds University, contradicted the developing PA-Israeli-US promoted myth that Fayyad is a Palestinian “Ben Gurion”. Instead, Nusseibeh noted that Fayyad’s policies have done little to build an independent Palestinian state but also done little to challenge Israel’s control of the occupied West Bank. Nusseibeh argued that “the PA should shut its offices and demand Israel annex the territories and give civil rights to the Palestinians”.

Having successfully used the PA and its security forces to disarm and squash the Palestinian armed resistance in the West Bank, Israel is now stepping up its attacks on the Palestinian non-violent resistance, arresting many of its leaders in recent months. Those arrested include Jamal Juma from the Palestinian Stop the Wall campaign, Abdullah Abu Rahme, one of the leaders of the Bil’in non-violent popular struggle, as well as other leaders of the Bil’in struggle, including Mohammed Khatib and Adeb Abu Rahme. Also arrested have been leaders of the non-violent struggle in Nablus and Mohammad Othman, a leader of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli apartheid campaign.

In recent weeks, Israel has also staged three illegal raids into Ramallah, arresting three international activists, including Australian Bridget Chappell, who have been working with the International Solidarity Movement. In Occupied East Jerusalem, Israeli anti-occupation activists campaigning in solidarity with Palestinians who have been evicted from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to make way for illegal Israel settlers, have also faced mass arrest at the weekly demonstrations in the neighbourhood.