By Michal Schwartz
Recurrent Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers stationed at the military checkpoint near Netzarim in the northern Gaza Strip have raised the question of whether or not the settlement should be evacuated. The killing of three soldiers by a Palestinian suicide attack at the junction on November 11 brought even greater urgency to the public debate. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called the settlement a thorn, and others argued that defending Netzarim has already cost too many soldiers' lives.
While Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin believes in a separation between Israeli and Palestinian populations and would rather Netzarim did not exist, he is also convinced that evacuating Netzarim will encourage attacks on other settlements. This, he believes, would lead to the collapse of Israeli control in the occupied territories.
The debate over Netzarim has much broader implications, however: tens of "Netzarim-type" settlements are scattered around the West Bank.
In the coming weeks, Rabin is expected to approve an IDF [Israeli Defence Force] plan which was published in Ha'aretz on November 22. The plan confirms that Israel does not envision withdrawal from the West Bank, now or ever.
The IDF plan calls for construction of 400 km of new roads in the West Bank at a cost of $330 million. This will include four trans-Samaria/Judea "strategic highways", off-limits to Palestinian cars, and scores of smaller settlement roads bypassing areas of Palestinian population. Israel is investing in an expensive infrastructure aimed at securing settlers' safety after the army redeploys.
A senior IDF officer said, "The plan is being pursued seriously. Its implementation will allow the army to control all the strategic sites and roads in the West Bank."
The four so-called strategic roads are as follows (in kilometres): Trans-Etzion, 25; Trans-Benyamin, 32; TransSamaria, 10; and Road Tal-Ya'abad-Malkishua, 64. The bypassing roads, though too many to list, will include: Jericho, 17; Nablus, 20; Ramallah-east, 11; Ramallah-north, 5.5; Tulkarem, 6; Bethlehem-Deheishe, 10; Halhoul-Hebron, 12.
This plan is not unexpected. The Oslo agreement says nothing about evacuating settlements. Indeed, the agreement implies that settlements will remain intact at least until the start of final status negotiations (not more than three years after the signing of the interim agreement, May 4, 1994), and that Palestinians in areas from which the IDF evacuates will be responsible for the settlers' security. In this way, the Palestinian negotiators legitimised the settlements.
Furthermore, since Rabin took office he has been talking about "security settlements" which Israel will not evacuate under any conditions and where construction has accelerated. Rabin's "security settlements" are concentrated in four areas: 1. The Jordan valley (excluding the enclave of Jericho); 2. The Jerusalem metropolitan area (1250 square km), three-quarters of which is in the West Bank, from Ramallah (north) to Gush Etzion (south) to Jericho (east) and to the newest of the "Seven Stars", Modi'in (west). The Israel Land Authority recently announced plans to construct 30,000 housing units over a period of five years in Jerusalem, nearly half of them in East Jerusalem; 3. Kiryat Arba and Hebron; 4. The so-called "seam-line" stretching from Jerusalem north-west along the Green Line through Qalqilya, Alfei Menashe and Tulkarem, where border corrections will widen Israel's "narrow waistline" by annexing more of the West Bank to Israel.
This concept, together with the permanent closure (imposed in March 1993), divided the West bank into southern and northern cantons, severed by Jerusalem. The northern canton is sliced by the trans-Samaria roads and settlement blocks. Supporters of the Oslo process, consciously or unconsciously, gave their backing to the conception of cantons, which prevents Palestinian territorial continuity and renders future Palestinian demands for self-determination and sovereignty non-viable.
The above concept of security settlements is just the rough outline. Looking at the details, Rabin has discovered that Oslo left many "blank spots" to be filled in. Enter the IDF plan. Even before completion of the plan, Palestinian territory will be divided not just into cantons but into little slivers. The West Bank will be a veritable Swiss cheese of isolated Palestinian population centres surrounded by Israeli settlements and settlement roads.
Former Jerusalem city council member Meron Benvenisti claims that the IDF plan, presented as a peace plan because it facilitates Israeli redeployment, is in fact a settlement plan promoted by the radical settler organisation Gush Emunim in the '80s (Ha'aretz, November 24). It was meant to facilitate quick development of settlement blocks in the West Bank. If Benvenisti's claim is right, the centre-left government of Rabin-Meretz will find itself in a rather odd position — implementing a settlement plan which even the Shamir government was unable to do, and all in the name of peace.
The timing of the IDF plan's release, on the eve of the talks about the second phase of the Oslo agreement and following the Netzarim debate, is not incidental. Israeli chief of staff Ehud Barak, who was not part of the original Oslo negotiations, believes like many others that the agreement is unimplementable in the West Bank. As far as he is concerned, Gaza and Jericho were the beginning and the end of redeployment.
The West Bank has tens of Netzarim-like settlements (69 according to one estimate), isolated and undefendable, scattered all over the place. Since the second phase of Oslo means holding elections, which necessitates redeployment, the fate of the settlements has become a burning issue among both Israelis and Palestinians.
It is unclear whether the IDF plan necessitates dismantling and resettling isolated settlements in bigger blocks, or not. In "There will be no evacuation" (Ha'aretz December 7), Orit Shohat comments that a "strange tranquillity prevails over the settlers". Their publication, Nekuda, expresses extreme optimism. The decision to invest in so many kilometres of roads means that the transitional period is the final one, according to Shohat.
In any case, it is no secret that the government has been negotiating with the settlers on settlement blocs for some time. According to Hana Kim, already in August minister of the environment Yossi Sarid negotiated with settler leaders Hanan Porat and Nathan Natanzon about settlement blocks accepted by both sides (Ha'aretz November 18). In late November Sarid, visiting a settlement in Hebron, declared that two (unspecified) settlement blocks in the West Bank will remain under Israeli sovereignty. He added that other settlements will remain under Palestinian rule, and that some will have to be dismantled.
Rabin knows, however, that any one of these plans will turn the West Bank into an impossible jigsaw puzzle, with the friction between armed settlers and Palestinians unresolved, in a situation which inevitably will result in bloodshed. Neither Rabin nor Arafat will be able to defend these settlements. The implementation of the second phase of the Oslo agreement will only precipitate the political downfall of its Israeli and Palestinian architects.
Fearing this outcome, the army says that elections must be delayed until some of the new roads and military bases are built, not less than nine months from now. Labor Party secretary Nissim Zvily talks about two years — dates are not sacred, he declares, parroting Rabin's mantra of last winter. Maybe the army will be redeployed for three days during the elections, says Rabin, and maybe they will stay there during elections as well.
Rabin has concluded that he has had all the Oslo he can bear and will not dismantle even one settlement. Israel will maintain direct control of the West Bank, and as for Israeli redeployment, Gaza and Jericho were first and last. The Oslo agreement will result in the perpetuation of Israeli occupation in a new, more complex arrangement.
[Reprinted from the Jerusalem-based magazine Challenge.]