Israel’s settlement drive is becoming irreversible, diplomats fear
MITZPE YERIHO (West Bank) - In the hills east of Jerusalem, overlooking the Palestinian city of Jericho and the Jordan valley, stands a religious Jewish settlement whose red-tile roofs, neat gardens and brightly coloured playgrounds give the sense of permanence.
Mitzpe Yeriho has stood on this escarpment close to the Dead Sea since 1978, one of more than 230 settlements Israelis have built on occupied land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Diplomats and international monitors are increasingly concerned that the drive, which has seen Israel settle more than 500,000 people at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, may be reaching the point of irreversibility.
If an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was magically struck tomorrow, the Palestinians would expect Israelis living in Mitzpe Yeriho to leave but its 3,000 residents have no such intention. To them, the settlement enterprise is God-given and irreversible.
“If there’s peace with the Palestinians we’re staying and if there’s no peace we’re staying,” said Yoel Mishael, 65, who has lived in Mitzpe Yeriho since its founding. “It’s part of Israel, according to the Bible. It’s something from God.”
In a sign that he is aware of the growing international pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently said he was in favour of parts of the peace initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia in 2002 that would grant Israel recognition in exchange for withdrawing from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, among other steps.
Yet, while some momentum may be building, there is scant indication the settlement enterprise can be halted, let alone reversed, leaving a fundamental barrier in the path to peace.
The settlement project began after Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. In the 1970s, with the government’s encouragement, large numbers of Jews moved onto the occupied land. There are now 550,000 of them.
Many live in large blocs near Jerusalem or the “green line” that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories. Others live deep inside the West Bank, in highly protected enclaves or pre-fabricated outposts perched on hilltops. All the constructions are illegal under international law. Israel disputes this and plays down the term “occupation”.
Barely a month goes by without a fresh announcement from the government or one of its ministries about West Bank territory being declared “state land”, a precursor to settlement building, or a decision to allow new construction to proceed.
At the same time, Palestinians living in a part of the West Bank known as Area C, which accounts for 60% of the total and is where most settlements are located, are being uprooted from the land in increasing numbers.
During a visit to a sensitive part of the West Bank near the Palestinian city of Nablus, where settlements occupy almost every hilltop and are steadily expanding their footprint, UN diplomats studied maps and pointed out how the Israeli enclaves were spreading east towards the Jordan valley.
“It starts to look irreversible,” said one official, a view separately supported by half a dozen foreign diplomats.
Under the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s, Israel retains full control over Area C, where large tracts have been declared closed military areas. As a result, Israeli courts tend to approve the removal of Palestinians from the area and the demolition of their homes, even though the accords did not change the illegal status of settlements there.
“Settlements are the vehicle for taking control of the land,” Catherine Cook, an official with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and an authority on settlements, said last month.
Asked whether she believed the settlement enterprise was irreversible, she replied: “Some of it has to be reversible.”
While not openly acknowledged, Palestinian negotiators accept that land swaps, in which the Israelis would keep major settlement blocs along the Green Line and near Jerusalem and the Palestinians would receive equivalent amounts of land from Israel in return, would be part of any peace deal.
That would leave vast areas of the West Bank, where 2.8 million Palestinians live in cities such as Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah, dotted with more than 100 settlements, many large and protected by the military.
Within Israel’s right-wing government, there is little appetite to cede any ground. Netanyahu says the failure to recognise Israel as a Jewish state is the biggest obstacle to peace, not the settlements.
Hagit Ofran, a senior official at Peace Now, an Israeli non-governmental organisation (NGO) opposed to settlements, said lines could be drawn that would allow a Palestinian state to emerge even if Israel kept many of its enclaves. Even then she estimates that as many as 150,000 settlers may have to be uprooted.
While some might leave willingly if offered the right compensation, many others would not. The removal of 8,500 settlers from Gaza in 2005 caused violence and outrage.
(Distributed by Reuters)