The ‘settlement freeze’ ruse

James Zogby’s Column

In 1865, the British author Lewis Carroll wrote the classic `Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. On the surface, it was a children’s book, but, in fact, it was a clever satire mocking the absurdity and mendacity of authority.

I was reminded of Alice this week as I read Israeli press reports noting that the United States was close to achieving an “historic agreement” with Israel regarding a “settlement freeze”. According to the reports, “construction beyond current built-up areas will be frozen”. Other points in the reported agreement state that no new settlements will be created; no additional land will be expropriated for the purpose of construction; but exceptions will be allowed for new roads.

It is quite bizarre that we are even discussing such a settlement freeze in 2001. In fact, it was about one decade ago that then secretary of state James Baker achieved a historic compromise of his own. In an effort to build the confidence necessary to coax Arabs and Israelis towards peace, Baker succeeded in getting a number of major Arab governments to agree to terminate enforcement of their secondary economic boycott of Israel in exchange for Israel’s agreement to a settlement freeze.

Since that time, Israel’s settlement presence in the occupied territories has doubled! While the Israelis continue to claim that they have not built new settlements and have only allowed for natural growth of existing settlements, their claims are patently false. Today, what Israel calls “greater Jerusalem”, is virtually surrounded by a “Great Wall” of new concrete settlements, which Israel calls “extensions of existing neighbourhoods”. In fact, they spread from hill to hill, ringing the city.

Palestinian villages have been trapped within these Israeli compounds and strangled. And while the Israelis continue to claim that they will not confiscate “new land” on which to build these extensions, this too is an artful fabrication. Large areas of Palestinian land surrounding settlements have already been seized by Israel and are defined as “state” (that is, Israeli controlled) lands.

Aside from all of this, there are, in fact, dozens of new settlements that have been developed in the past decade, some as so-called “private” ventures, a practice by which successive Israeli governments have attempted to absolve themselves of responsibility. But all receive government assistance in the form of infrastructure support and protection.

As damaging as this cancerous growth of new housing has been to the Palestinians, the dramatic expansion of the network of “Jewish only” security roads, in reality, super highways connecting many of the settlements to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has been even worse. Large swathes of Palestinian land have been taken and declared off-limits to facilitate the construction and operation of these roads. The impact of this network of roads has been to cut the occupied territories into pieces.

All of this has been in direct fulfilment of the original Likud plan for the occupied territories first defined in an October 1978 World Zionist Organisation “White Paper”, titled “Master Plan for Development of Settlement in Judea and Samaria 1979-1983”. Written by Matityahu Drobles, it was described as a plan “making concrete and realising our right to Eretz Israel”. In the paper, Drobles lays out in detail a plan to construct “settlements and roads around the settlements of the minorities [i.e., the Palestinians], but also in between them, this in accordance with the settlement policy adopted in the Galilee”.

Describing the intent of this plan, then economics editor of the Jerusalem Post Meir Merhav told Time Magazine in March 1980 that the West Bank “is to be carved up by a grid of roads, settlements and strongholds into a score of little bantustans so that [the Palestinians] shall never coalesce again into a contiguous area that can support autonomous, let alone, independent existence”. All of this, of course, was verbally opposed by successive US Presidents from Carter to Clinton. Whether decrying the settlements as “illegal”, “obstacles to peace”, “unhelpful unilateral acts” or “provocative” and “impediments”, opposition was clear, but no action, forceful and definitive, was taken to bring about a halt in their growth.

And so here we are today, 20 years after Merhav’s fateful analysis and Carter’s stern warnings, ten years after Madrid and Baker’s “historic compromise”, and the Drobles’ Plan is near completion. In violation of unenforced international law, 400,000 Israelis have been transferred into settlements in the occupied territories (including what Israel calls annexed East Jerusalem) and the territories have been carved up into pieces. More than that, tens of thousands of these settlers are a hostile and dangerous vigilante presence in the occupied territories, armed not only with weapons but an uncompromising theologically based ideology of entitlement and conquest.

Many Israelis understand the dangers posed by this situation. They know that despite the rhetoric of a new “freeze”, the intent of the government remains the same.

As Yossi Sarid, a leader of the Meretz Party noted: “When you build new settlements or expand existing settlements, it means that you want to persist with the occupation and deepen it.” And prominent Israeli military analyst Ze’ev Shiff observed: “Most of Israel’s governments have tried various ploys regarding the settlements… the excuses were absurd, because everyone understood that there was only one interpretation for settlement expansion: the creation of facts intended to help Israel close off the option of the Palestinians being able to establish a viable state.” And former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti dismissed the ruse of a “freeze” by noting that the settlement enterprise is “not a demographic-physical matter that can be measured by the number of populated apartments and the increase in the number of settlers. It is a hydra controlling millions of acres, water sources, roads, economic endeavours, huge budgets and especially unlimited real estate potential.”

The Mitchell report was quite clear. “A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be politically hard to sustain unless the government of Israel freezes all settlement activity… including `natural growth’ of existing settlements.” The reports of the “historic agreement” are a dramatic step back from Mitchell’s recommendation and, as such, represent an accommodation to Israel’s intent to continue and deepen its presence in the occupied territories.

So excuse me if I remain unconvinced by this latest “settlement freeze”, full as it is of loopholes and exceptions. I’ve visited this “wonderland” before.