NEW YORK: During her visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel to stop expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian territory. Hours before, a new report had come out from the organization Peace Now stating that Israel has nearly doubled settlement construction during the past year. Statements similar to Dr Rice’s have been abundantly made by US administrations over the past two decades without any effect on the rate of new settlements’ construction on Palestinian territory.
Israel had promised to halt all settlement construction according to the tenets of the “Road Map international peace plan for the Middle East. However, rather than fulfilling that promise, Israel has constructed thousands of homes in West Bank territory it hopes to keep under its control.
According to Peace Now, more than 2,600 housing units are under construction in the West Bank, including units in more than 1,000 new buildings. Peace Now’s conclusions, based on aerial photographs and field visits, state that construction is encroaching on the boundaries of important Palestinian towns such as Ramallah and Bethlehem.
There has been an increase of 550 percent in the number of tenders for construction in the settlements: they increased to 417 housing units in 2008 compared to 65 in 2007. It includes 125 buildings at outposts with 30 permanent structures. Only in Arab East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel following the 1967 Six Day War, the number of tenders has increased by a factor of 38 (1,761 housing units in 2008 compared to 46 in 2007.)
“Israel is erasing the Green Line through intensive new construction intended to create a territorial connection between the bigger blocks of settlements and isolated settlements in the heart of the West Bank, according to Yariv Oppenheimer, Peace Now director. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni declared recently, “But at the end of the day the Israeli government’s policy is not to expand settlements, not to build new settlements and not to confiscate Palestinian land.
Several international bodies, including the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, the International Court of Justice, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have characterized Israeli settlements in occupied territory as violating international law, an assessment that is not shared by the Israeli government or the Anti-Defamation League.
Israelis who support the building of settlements state that they are religiously justified in owning the land, and Israel’s Foreign Ministry states the legitimacy of the settlements because they were built when there was no operative diplomatic agreement, and thus they did not violate any previous arrangement with the Palestinians. B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, states that the Israeli government used the absence of modern legal documents for the communal land as a legal basis for expropriating it.
In November 2006 Peace Now acquired a report, which it says was leaked from the Israeli Government’s Civil Administration, that indicates that almost 40 percent of the settlement land that Israel wants to retain is privately owned by Palestinians, in clear violation of Israeli law. Israel’s Civil Administration originally contended that the report cited by Peace Now was based on a leaked map that showed Palestinian claims rather than rights.
However, in February of 2008 the Civil Administration admitted that more than a third of West Bank settlements were built on private Palestinian land, which had been originally seized by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) for ‘security purposes’. And in March of 2008, the Civil Administration defined as ‘theft’ the unauthorized seizure of private Palestinian land.
The settlement issue continues to be among the main causes of contention among Israelis and Palestinians. Despite the fact that the US is the only country with any real leverage over the Israeli government, the last US administrations had been unwilling to press Israel to stop settlement construction. Only a drastic change of course can bring peace to the Middle East. For Dr Rice and the Bush Administration, it is possibly their last chance to show a foreign policy achievement during their tenure.
Dr Cesar Chelala,a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, is the foreign correspondent for the Middle East Times International (Australia).This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.