Report on Israeli settlement in the occupied territories Jul - Aug 2009



By Geoffrey Aronson

Never in the forty-two years that Israel has been occupying and settling the West Bank has an Israeli prime minister taken seriously, let alone implemented, U.S. demands for a freeze of settlement expansion. From the administration of Lyndon Johnson, when the United States first noted Israel's violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting the transfer of its civilian population to the occupied territories, to the June 4, 2009, declaration in Cairo by President Barack Obama rejecting "the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," Washington's opposition to settlements has been variously, and always successfully, ignored, outlived, sidelined, or negotiated away.

Israel has built settlements demonstratively, as a "Zionist response" to Palestinian attacks or aggressive American diplomacy. The settlements in Hebron fit this category, as do the "Baker settlements," championed by Secretary of State James Baker's nemesis Ariel Sharon almost twenty years ago. In one of these, Revava, outside of Nablus, a new neighborhood of 52 "villas" is now under construction.

Israel has built settlements quietly, hoping not to excite strenuous international opposition. Until recently, this has been the case with E-1, the vast area of the West Bank east of Jerusalem where for many years Israel has been constructing elaborate infrastructure for future settlement that would effectively divide the north and south West Bank and seal off East Jerusalem from its Palestinian hinterland. This project continues despite widespread protest, including a recent, unprecedented public ceremony inaugurating a new national police chief in the imposing police headquarters built in the eastern part of E-1.

Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir trumpeted their settlement achievements.Many others, including Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert "talked left and built right."Whatever the method, Israel has never stopped building settlements and related transportation and security infrastructure for settlers.

Israel has built settlements without consideration for international opinion, as did Defense Minister Ehud Barak when in June 2009 he authorized the Civil Administration to submit a plan for the construction of 300 housing units in the unauthorized outpost of Givat Habrecha, near the settlement of Talmon east of the separation barrier. Palestinian opposition to settlements is invariably ignored or dismissed.

Is this central feature of the occupation about to change? President Obama's insistent call for a comprehensive end to continued settlement activity is unprecedented in its intensity. Despite the fact that until now all that he has asked of Israel is that it abide by the settlement commitments of George W. Bush's road map, Obama's demand rings all the louder in comparison to the more forgiving U.S. policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations.

It is not surprising that when faced with Obama's demand for a freeze, Israel's leaders are confident that the new president's efforts will be neutralized. Once again they are offering a menu of policy compromises-a freeze of limited duration and scope, construction within existing settlement perimeters, no new settlements or special government incentives, "natural growth" to accommodate growing settler families and their everyday needs, and expansion only in settlement blocs. These artifices have succeeded for almost five decades, enabling Israel to settle close to half a million of its citizens in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights in the face of virtually unanimous international opposition. This is an astonishing achievement that reflects Israel's determination, the chronic weakness of American and international diplomacy, and the failure of Palestinian protest and opposition.

"[U.S. special envoy George] Mitchell knows the fraud exactly," says a former top official in Israel's Defense Ministry.When Israelis argued that restricting the natural growth of settlements is like the Holocaust, as they did at a May 26, 2009 meeting in London, the Americans sitting opposite remained unmoved.