As Israeli Arabs mark Land Day this week, Ariel Sharon’s government announced what everybody already knew since last summer. The Israeli government is going to expand the Maaleh Adumim settlement bloc in the West Bank by 3,500 housing units. With other development measures in place, it will effectively separate the West Bank and leave any open corridor under Israeli control as well as redraw the boundaries of Jerusalem. Other policies such as the construction of the Separation Wall will continue unabated.
Despite positive policy developments since the recent Palestinian elections and the death of Yasser Arafat, this recent announcement brought back the reality of the old days and the original playbook of the Israeli right: act unilaterally, expand the settlements, make a land grab and blame the Palestinians for everything.
As right wing factions in the Knesset sought to build support for a referendum on the Gaza withdrawal last week, Sharon and his coalition government backed by Labor soundly defeated the motion. There was Sharon again in his new persona as a man of the middle.
"We can’t expect to receive explicit American agreements to build freely in the Settlements," he told his Cabinet colleagues. "The Americans always expressed criticism about construction in the settlements, and they have done so now, too."
As Sharon prepares to meet President Bush next month, his government is continuing to change the facts on the ground. Under the cover of the Gaza withdrawal, the plan for continued settlement expansion is moving ahead.
Sharon plans to proceed with expansion while the Bush Administration will not go beyond a few public statements expressing concerns with the policy. The Roadmap to Peace, in this environment, has no standing in the Middle East as a legitimate vehicle for peace or a final agreement. As it stands now, it is a public relations exercise designed to fill a diplomatic vacuum.
Despite UN resolutions, pronouncements made during the Roadmap to Peace process and other public statements, the plan to redraw Jerusalem and build into the West Bank has had no serious opposition. Sharon’s unilateralism has won the day while he has been showered with the praise of a moderate.
Many Israeli commentators such as Gideon Levy, Amira Hass and Tanya Reinhart have asked the question, "Is the left dead in Israel?" As the settlers protesting the Gaza withdrawal bring 100,000 to Jerusalem, the groups opposing settlement expansion have yet to build a public consensus or win over the street.
In this failure of leadership on the Israeli left, a movement which has barely lifted a finger since the Camp David Accords, has been the further negation and marginalization of even the most basic Palestinian demands, backed by international law, UN resolutions and the International Court of Justice.
The narrative has rarely shifted. "There can be no peace until the Palestinians deal with their own terrorists." Incitement still exists on both sides of the border, but one is still the aggressor and the other, the occupied. Today, on the Israeli side just as with the Bush Administration, unilateralism is rewarded as an example of true leadership.
In supporting the expansion of Maaleh Adumim, Sharon is imposing a new geographic and demographic reality on Jerusalem. In addition to other policies such as the Separation Wall and evictions in the City of David/Silwan neighbourhood, it is fair to say that there is a policy of ethnic transfer occurring today all under the watchful eye of the EU, the UN and the United States.
The Greater Jerusalem Plan includes an area exceeding 10 percent of the West Bank and will ensure that there will be no contiguity between the southern and northern areas of the West Bank.
The peace process certainly has not been kind to the Palestinians. The number of settlers has increased from 105,000 in 1992 to 236,000 at present in the West Bank. Last year alone, 4,000 housing units were constructed during the US led the Roadmap to Peace.
Since September 2000, when Ariel Sharon made his visit to the Temple Mount igniting the Second Intifada, more than 3,200 Palestinians have been killed and 1,000 Israelis. Most of these killed were unarmed civilians. In the process, over 4,000 homes have been demolished and the main features of the Occupation continue – movement restrictions, choking of the Palestinian economy, administrative detention, collective punishment, denial of basic services and building of the Separation Wall has led to John Dugard, the UN Special Rapporteur to Palestine calling the situation similar to Apartheid.
In a report last year, Dugard noted that settlement expansion together with the construction of the Separation Wall, "suggests that territorial expansion remains an essential feature of the Israel’s policies and practises in the [occupied Palestinian Territories]."
If the narrative in the mainstream media will simply be that Sharon, the father of the settlement movement, is now the one leading his nation to peace by implementing the Gaza withdrawal, it will be a story which does not recognize his direct role in expanding settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank – a policy which will prolong any hope for a final status agreement. A peace process without a human rights agenda will be meaningless.