Thursday, October 7, 2010

Thoughts on a Settlement Freeze

Israel's 10-month moratorium on construction in disputed territory has passed, and she is now being pressured by the United States to extend the moratorium for an additional two months. The two major questions one should ask are (a): why did the Palestinians wait until there was only one month remaining in the initial moratorium before beginning talks and (b) why has the U.S. been pushing for an additional two-month extension?

These two questions lead me to be somewhat cynical about the process. If there is a reasonable expectation for achieving a breakthrough within two months, then why didn't the U.S. push the Palestianians to begin talking immediately after Israel began it's moratorium? And if there is not a reasonable expectation that an agreement can be reached quickly, why a tw0-month extension? Could the new deadline be prompted by the upcoming U.S. election--giving voters the illusion of peace and progress until after the election is over?

I'm also concerned that Israeli settlements are said to be the key obstacle to an agreement. An article appeared September 30 that illustrates my concern. The article, from Radio Netherlands Worldwide, was titled "Dutch expert maps Israeli land grab." The article cites this so-called expert who said, "Jewish settlers account for just one percent of the population of the West Bank...but are claiming 60 percent of the land." Unless someone has traveled in this area--and most people have not--this sounds like solid evidence from a reputable expert showing that Israel is indeed stealing land that belongs to the Palestinians.

So what is the truth? Having traveled throughout the West Bank, I simply find claims like the one made above impossible to believe. The reality is that large portions of the region are not inhabited by anyone. I found an op/ed piece ("Settlements not the issue") written by Shoula Romano Horing to be far more representative of reality when it comes to the issue of settlements. I will quote part of what she wrote, but I urge you to read the entire piece.

The amount of territory taken up by the built-up area of all 121 settlements in the West Bank, with approximately 290,000 residents, is estimated to be just 1.7% of the territory. Two thirds of the settlers reside in five major blocs, and half of the settlements have 500 or less settlers. Four of the blocks are very close to the 1949 armistice line (“Green Line”) and many of them are suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Ninety eight percent of the Palestinian population lives within roughly 40% of the West Bank, in six major cities and 450 villages. Consequently, 60% of the West Bank is empty of any buildup. You can drive for a long while in the West Bank and find no Jewish settlements or Arab cities, or people.

So do the settlements comprise 60% of the West Bank...or 1.7% of the West Bank? Horing doesn't appear to have included land appropriated for settlements but not yet built on, so the total land for settlements is more than 1.7%. The Palestine Monitor suggests the total land appropriated by Israeli settlements amounts to 3%.

So is the amount of land taken up by Israeli settlements 1.7%, 3%, or 60%? Why the huge variation in numbers? The answer brings us back to the complexity of the problem--and the danger of giving a simplistic answer. When someone refers to "Israeli settlements," to what are they referring? If they are speaking about the actual communities within the West Bank proper, then the land taken up by these settlements is less than 3% of the total area. But if someone is including land used for infrastructure (new roads), the security wall, and military bases--as well as other restricted areas and those parts of Jerusalem that have been annexed by Israel--then the percent is higher. But even then it's hard to reach anything approaching 60%.

But back to the issue at hand. When most people think of Israeli construction in the West Bank, we are looking at less than 3% of the land in question. And most construction is taking place in towns near the 1949 Armistice border or in the immediate suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That is the reality that is being lost in the rhetoric. If there is a two-month moratorium on construction in these areas, I struggle to believe it will make a substantive difference in the outcome of the talks.

But we shall see!

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