“Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours… Everything we don’t grab will go to them,” said Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Foreign Minister. He was addressing a meeting of militants from the extreme right-wing Tsomet Party. Sharon continues to be defiant about settlements despite recent US criticism.
While the intentions have not always been so publicly dramatic, this sort of mentality has guided even the most so-called “dovish” of Israeli governments. Though former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was credited by western media as being the generous peacemaker, little is said about Barak, the settlement builder. In fact, Barak was biggest settlement builder since 1992. According to the Israeli Housing Ministry, Barak’s government began construction of 1,943 housing units in the Occupied Palestinian Territories last year – the largest number in any year since 1992. The Israeli Ha’aretz has even noted that the building of these illegal settlement hasn’t stopped since the second Intifada began. In the last quarter of 2000, work was begun on 954 housing units, up from 368 in the final quarter of 1999.
And according to leaks from the infamous failure known as the Camp David Summit, Barak’s generous offer would have allowed for a whopping 80% of the current illegal settlements to remain in a final agreement. Generous offer for whom?
The rationale for such illegal building has been the altruistic reason of “natural growth” by Jewish settlers. Note that “natural increase,” is an accepted statistical term involving the number of births minus the number of deaths. The natural increase in the Jewish population of the West Bank and Gaza is 3.4 percent. However, the term “natural growth” is far more flexible and has less to do with the need for housing then the actual intention of expansion. Natural growth was allowed for in the Oslo Accords and every prime minister since the late Yitzhak Rabin had taken advantage of this term. For example, Rabin used this terminology to construct thousands of housing units in the illegal settlements of Ma’aleh Adumim, Beitar Ilit, Givat Ze’ev and Gush Etzion. [All of these settlements border Jerusalem and it is reported that Rabin wanted to include these settlements to expand Jerusalem and include this area as permanent borders].
According to Ha’aretz, Benjamin Netanyahu also used the flexibility of the term to increase building starts by 100 percent in 1998. And Barak conveniently used the term to widen his electoral base, when he desperately needed the right-wing National Religious Party in his coalition. Despite condemnations of settlement building from time to time, Israel succeeded with its natural growth reasoning. The reasoning sounded humanitarian. So why not? Ironically, this humanitarian concept has never applied to Palestinian overcrowding. In fact, Palestinian homes are demolished on a regular basis, even when it results in the homelessness of many. In other cases, such as in January 1997, Netanyahu’s government halted the renovation of Palestinian homes in Hebron. The rationale? The homes were near illegal Jewish settlements and such construction would be a security risk.
For settlers, the chance to move to the Occupied Palestinian Territories is simply too good of a deal to pass up. They enjoy the privileges of being Israeli citizens, are immune from closures affecting the Palestinian natives, and are legally-armed with assault weapons. Economic incentives? Tax breaks, generous grants for students and government-build day care centers. Business people generally receive grants equal to at least 20 percent of their investments.
The special treatment afforded to settlers has brought about disenchantment among many in the Israeli public. Still, it is apparent that each Israeli government feels the investment is worth it, no matter how unpopular or illegal it is. And the settlements are illegal. They violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which demands the occupier of foreign land to refrain from undertaking any procedures meant to change the status quo of the occupied territories, including the transfer of its civilians. They also violate UN security council resolutions 242 and 338, not to mention bilateral agreements which hold that unilateral actions designed to change the status of the West Bank and Gaza are violations.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell recently told Ariel Sharon that the United States opposes any expansion of the settlements, including Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. It was reported that Sharon rejected this. Sadly, it appears that Israel’s settlement policy — carried out by each successive government — will continue. And sadly, it appears the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will follow suit.
Sherri Muzher is a Freelance writer for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and Former Executive Director of the Council for Palestinian Restitution and Repatriation.