‘Fraud in the name of natural growth’

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Israel has rejected the Mitchell Commission report on the outbreak of Al Aqsa Intifada. The news emerged Tuesday night in low key reports from Washington.

What do the Arabs have to say? What is the reaction of the international community? If the rejectionists had been the Palestinians, the US and Europe would have promptly condemned them for obstructing efforts to resurrect the moribund peace process. But there is not condemnation, or even criticism, when the rejectionist is Israel. And to make matters worse, Israel’s primary reason for rejecting the package is fraudulent.

Israel’s rejection of the Mitchell Commission’s package is based mainly on four objections:

– to the commission’s refusal to accept Israel’s definition of the conflict in the territories as “armed conflict short of war” rather than civil disorder;

– to the commission’s contention that the Intifada was not planned by the Palestine National Authority, as Israel claims;

– to the commission’s criticism of Israel for its use of excessive force and live ammunition against civilians;

– and, above all, to the commission’s call for a total settlement freeze.

The last point, of course, is the most serious for it calls for a halt to the main activity of the Zionist enterprise to gain possession of the whole of Palestine (plus, ultimately, the Syrian Golan, southern Lebanon and the East Bank of the Jordan River).

The objections to the suggestion of a settlement freeze are so strong as to be hysterical. Indeed, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said, in an interview published in Haaretz on May 15, that Israel is now fighting a “battle for its existence. The problems are existential, and in all my days I have never known their like”. Since Peres has been on the Israeli political scene since the founding of the state, this involves a great many “days”. In the past, Menachem Begin used to say: “We fight, therefore we exist.” Today the motto of the Israeli politico-military establishment seems to be: “We settle, therefore we exist.”

The fact that the de facto Labour leader Peres, Israel’s, alleged, chief peacenik, is in the forefront of defending the pro-settlement policy of Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shows that there is no fundamental difference between the two ruling parties on this issue.

However, the Israeli political establishment’s atavistic – yea hysterical – reaction to a settlement freeze is completely fraudulent. There is absolutely no need to build housing in the settlements already planted in Gaza and the West Bank because there are thousands of empty housing units. Peace Now estimates that there are more than 3,500 empty houses and flats and at least 6,500 under construction. American intelligence sources cite the figure of 20,000 unoccupied units!

Nevertheless, the Sharon government insists that it must continue building to account for “natural increase”, i.e., children born to existing settlers. Since “natural increase” should be at the rate of about 2 per cent per year, the rate of increase for “Israel proper”, existing units should cover this increase for two and a half years – if one takes the Peace Now figure of 10,000 units empty or under construction – or five years – if one accepts the US figure.

Shimon Peres has even come up with a “non-territorial formula” to provide for “natural growth”. According to this formula, which he has been touting in Europe and the US, there would be no construction outside established settlements or expansion of Israel’s land holdings in the West Bank and Gaza. He has, however, said nothing about halting the flow of Israelis moving from across the Green Line into the settlements – which during the last year increased the overall settler population at the rate of 8 per cent.

There is nothing “natural” about such growth. And he has said nothing about the building of roads serving the settlements – or the Jerusalem bypass highway approved by the government, in spite of the fact that it will eat up thousands of hectares of Palestinian land and require the bulldozing of many Palestinian homes.

Nor did Peres admit to the outflow of settlers from exposed settlements due to the Intifada. Daniel Ben Simon, writing in Haaretz on the Day of Al Nakba, described the true situation in the settlements. He said that in the past few months he had conducted an intensive survey of the settlements and “observed at first hand the distress in which the settlers find themselves…. Anxiety and depression plague parents… fear and stress stalk children who have been evacuated from classrooms at which mortars have been fired. When they leave their homes, the settlers can never know for certain whether they will return in one piece.”

If this is true, then the situation of the 200,000 Gaza and West Bank settlers (and perhaps of some of the 250,000 Jerusalem settlers) mirrors that of the 3.2 million Palestinians who are struggling for an end to settlement expansion and self determination. If this is true, there is some sort of equivalence of anxiety.

Ben Simon writes of the settler “émigrés” who are either leaving permanently or relocating “until things blow over”. He is specific about the settlements of the northern Gaza Strip: nearly half the 15 houses in Dugit are empty; a new neighbourhood in Nisanit is a “ghost town”; 15 families live in the 100 houses built in Pe’at Sadeh and some of them plan to depart.

In the bitterly contested Kfar Darom settlement next to Deir Al Balah, at the centre of the Strip, only 10 of the 30 families remain. In Morag, in the southern part of Gush Katif, near Rafah, construction continues on a synagogue for which there may not be enough male residents to constitute the necessary quorum to hold prayer services. And in the “ideological settlement” of Neveh Dekalim, the target of many a Palestinian mortar, families are registering their children in schools in Ashkelon and Ashdod ahead of making the move back across the “Green Line”.

While this correspondent was driving along the road beside the southern bloc of settlements recently, my companion, a Westerner working for a UN agency, remarked that many of the settlers do not remain in their homes at night but are evacuated in military convoys and return only during the day. They already have alternative accommodation in “safe” Israel and are, literally, “employed” to squat in daytime peril in exposed settlements.

Ben Simon says that the “situation is just as bad” in the settlements of the Jordan Valley. He observes: “Considering the freeze the security situation has already imposed on the settlements, it is hard not to lose your temper when you hear all the nonsensical talk about the danger of a freeze on settlements. Not only are the settlements `frozen’, they have already lost many of their inhabitants.”

Hopefully, Ben Simon’s article has been read by Western diplomats based in Israel and neighbouring Arab capitals and by some of the 58 per cent of Jewish Israelis who, when polled this week, favoured the settlement freeze proposed in both the Mitchell report and the Jordanian-Egyptian peace plan. If this happens, perhaps, just perhaps, influential people might wake up to and remark on the fraud the Israeli government is still trying to perpetrate – in the name of “natural growth” – on its own populace and the world.

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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