By Jennifer Thompson
In defiance of the Oslo peace accords, the Israeli government is continuing the policy of new settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and proceeding with Israeli Prime Minister Rabin's plans to wall off these settlements under the pretext of "security".
The Israeli government closed the West Bank and Gaza, preventing more than 50,000 Palestinians from entering Israel and Jerusalem to work, in the wake of the Islamic Jihad bombing of a military bus station in Beit Lid. On January 26, Rabin announced a proposal to "physically segregate" Palestinians and Israelis — a plan for permanent closure.
Rabin's proposal would atomise of the Palestinian national entity. It would include the building of a 228-mile "security line" in the West Bank. The plan is likely to involve an elaborate series of fences, patrols, watchtowers, checkpoints, high-tech radar and sensors and even aerial surveillance.
Estimated to cost about US$740 million, the proposal will be implemented by a committee led by the hardline police minister, Moshe Shalal, who is already lobbying hard for increased funds for patrolling and equipment. The first stage of the plan has already been implemented with the deployment of dogs at crossings between the West Bank and Israel.
Rabin said that the fence would not run along the old Green Line, which delineates the pre-1967 boundaries. A recent report by the Jaffa Centre for Strategic Studies recommended that Israel annex those settlements currently to the east of the Green Line, as well as those which lie within a 15 km radius of Jerusalem. These settlements contain around 70% of the 120,000 settlers in the West Bank.
In this light "separation" means annexing 40% of the occupied territories, including "united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty".
A Meretz Knesset member and chairperson of the parliamentary legal committee, Dedi Zucker, has proposed a "compromise" plan: the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank, with "islets" of Jewish settlers living there. Meretz is part of the so-called left wing in coalition with the Israeli Labour Party, and theoretically opposes Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. On a practical level, it has supported Rabin on closure, Israeli "security", maintenance of the settlements and Israeli army deployment in the occupied territories. The "compromise" proposal is not fundamentally different from Labor's plan — the settlements would remain and with them all the associated security arrangements.
An Israeli cabinet committee decided on January 25 to allow the minister of housing, Benyamin Ben-Eliezer, to build massively in the area around Jerusalem — a "greater Jerusalem". The decision authorised the construction of 2500 housing units in Ma'aleh Adumim, 1000 in Givat Ze'ev and 1500 in Beitar, in addition to more units in smaller settlements.
Palestinians had accused Israel, even before the latest announcements, of a campaign of "changing the facts on the ground" by building settlements to isolate Jerusalem from the remainder of the West Bank, prior to negotiations on Jerusalem's status, scheduled for the later stages of the peace process.
Rabin's 1992 pledge (given largely to persuade the US to provide Israel with US$10 billion in loan guarantees) to freeze new settlements in the occupied territories was promised to be sustained with the signing of the Declaration of Principles. In reality, figures indicate that Labour is building housing units at a greater rate than Likud. From 1979 to 1992, the Likud government built 4000 flats in Ma'aleh Adumim; Labour will have added 2000 in four years.
Palestinian anger has been intensified by land confiscations and the January 16 announcement by an Israeli official that the government intends to build up to 30,000 new units in Jerusalem and the West Bank over the next three to four years. Furthermore, to "secure settlers' security", construction has begun on a 400 km network of roads for exclusive use by settlers, which will fragment the territories into "a veritable Swiss cheese of isolated Palestinian population centres surrounded by Israeli roads and settlements", as one Israeli journalist described it.
In the period since Oslo, Israel has confiscated 40,000 acres of Palestinian land. Palestinian mobilisation against the intended confiscation of land belonging to the villages of Al Khader and Abu Ghuneim resulted in the calling of a National Anti-settlement Day in January. Marwan Barghouthi, a senior Fateh official, described the mobilisations as the beginning of a new intifada, saying there would be mass marches in all areas.
As well as the actions against confiscations for new construction, Palestinians in Hebron held a general strike on February 14 to mark the massacre last year of 29 Palestinians praying in the Cave of the Patriarchs, sacred to Jews and Muslims, by right-wing religious settler Baruch Goldstein. Clashes with Israeli soldiers left one Palestinian dead and seven injured.
Hebron is one of the most deliberately provocative cases of Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. Some 450 Jewish zealots live close to the centre of the city of 100,000 Arabs, and it has become a focus for the fanatical settler movement. Incidents of extreme settler violence against Palestinians, often under the watch of the Israeli battalion assigned to protect the settlement, has even led to complaints by soldiers about the settler behaviour.
Israeli soldiers, speaking to a journalist before the Hebron massacre, said that they were "forbidden to arrest a Jew, except if he hits a soldier, of after he injures an Arab by shooting in the presence of an Israeli army soldier". Beating Palestinians, humiliating them or vandalising their property before the eyes of soldiers is not regarded as a "sufficient reason" for arresting a settler, but "an Arab is sent to jail the minute he is seen to throw a stone".
Rabin has repeatedly shrunk from confronting the settlers, many of whom praise Goldstein's actions. They last year erected a white marble memorial to him at Kiryat Arba, and settlers and US tourists spent the anniversary of the massacre making pilgrimages to his tomb. "Deep in every Jew is a little Goldstein", said Noam Federman of the outlawed extreme-right Kach party.
Writing in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs before last year's massacre, Israel Shahak, respected peace activist and chairperson of the Israeli League of Human and Civil Rights, explained Rabin's attitude toward the right-wing settler movement: "The most important conclusion warranted by the evidence is that Rabin's real policy is to support the settlements in order to guarantee continued Israeli domination of the territories. To pursue that policy, Rabin needs to bestow favours upon religious settlers, because they alone are willing to settle in places like Hebron. He must condone their violence against the Palestinians."
The failure of Rabin's government to dismantle the settlements and halt further construction is a major impediment to the entire accords process. It creates a situation in which Palestinians intent on winning a viable national entity will increasingly feel driven to renew active resistance to the Israeli occupation. While the focus to date has been on Islamic resistance, Israel's blocking of the peace process may fuel the resurgence of a secular movement.