The problem, in a nutshell

The Ras al-Amud settlement is one of several significant projects that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon chose to pursue as the outside world was busy with the agitation of the war on Iraq. Another was the expropriation of land for a different kind of settlement project: in the northern West Bank, the bulldozers constructing miles of Israeli wall can be heard working non-stop. But the Ras al-Amud Jewish settlement is especially dangerous from the Palestinian perspective because it signifies yet another change in the Jerusalem status quo, i.e. it is one more step forward for the tenacious Israeli policy of altering Jerusalem’s demography and therefore jeopardizing peace negotiations.

Jerusalem has always been one of the most significant points of dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Oslo agreements listed it among the final status negotiating issues in 1993 and it was one of the most troublesome negotiations issues at Camp David in the summer of 2000, after which talks fell apart. In microcosm, the Ras al-Amud settlement project reflects the significance and sensitivity of the Jerusalem component as a whole. Further, conflicts over Jerusalem embody the entire Palestinian-Israeli conflict in that they engage the crucial issues of land, population, Israeli settlements and final borders. That is precisely why the Israeli occupation has pursued an aggressive policy of trying to predetermine the outcome of those disputes with unabashed public planning to Judaize the city’s Palestinian areas.

The Israeli government has managed this from all angles: building complexes to add more Israeli Jews in the eastern, occupied half of the city, thus affecting its demographic composition; denying Palestinians building permits to diminish their presence; as well as rescinding the identity cards of Arab Jerusalem residents who cannot produce the pile of paperwork necessary to prove that their “center of life” is in the city.

More recently, Jerusalem’s Israeli settlements have grown to such magnitude that they follow a new rationale of surrounding Palestinian populated areas and physically preventing their expansion. The Palestinians therefore live on islands surrounded by Israeli settlements that were built on confiscated Palestinian land. Ras al-Amud will close one of these circles in a way that blocks the continuity of Palestinian populated areas, preventing independence–and in the big picture–the essence of the two-state solution.

The strategic mistake that Israeli policymakers are committing in continuing this course of action is located in their belief that the creation of new facts will have to be considered in any final peace settlement, regardless of those facts’ legality. That mentality was illustrated in the Israeli proposal for solving the Jerusalem problem at the Camp David negotiations. Israel suggested that the solution be based on its annexation of what has already been confiscated in East Jerusalem. Israel simply assumed that Palestinians would have to recognize its spoils as fact, given the situation on the ground. In return, Palestinians were to be given some modicum of control over those parts of East Jerusalem that Israel has not attempted to annex during the last 35 years of occupation. No one needs to be reminded that this formula did not work, and is the reason we are in this crisis today.

As such, the strategy of creating facts will not increase Israel’s winnings in the final negotiations–when we arrive at that point–as much as they will reduce the chances for making peace between the two sides. Palestinians, whose sole recourse in this imbalance of power is international law, will not accept any agreement that permits Israel to claim land that was confiscated by force because international law is very clear on this point. International law and the relevant Security Council resolutions refer to all of the territories occupied in 1967 as territories under a belligerent military occupation. These tenets remain codified today in the Quartet roadmap, which seems to be gaining momentum. Its preamble reads: “The settlement will resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and end the occupation that began in 1967, based on the foundations of the Madrid Conference, the principle of land for peace, UNSCRs 242, 338 and 1397, agreements previously reached by the parties, and the initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.” Ending the occupation means ending all means of controlling Palestinians, including attempts to surround them or outnumber them by force.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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