Blocking Mideast Peace
Cold truths of freezing Jewish settlements
By Sharmila Devi
April 30, 2003
Financial Times Limited

At the height of the war in Iraq last month, Washington quietly rebuked Israel for allowing Jewish families to move into a new settlement in Arab east

Indeed, despite the US State Department's calling the move "inconsistent" with President George W. Bush's vision of an Israeli and Palestinian state living to gether in peace, settlers are now ensconced in a fortified apartment complex near the densely populated district of Ras al-Amoud. The settlers
include Irving Moskowitz, a millionaire, and his son-in-law Ariel King, a far-right political activist.

The Israeli group Peace Now says the move to populate the settlement during the war was a concerted effort to avoid international criticism. "This is a
settler group, extremists who want to transfer the Arabs," says Eyal Hareuveni, a director at the group's Jerusalem branch. "This is only a recipe
for friction and violence."

The movement highlights the difficulties in implementing a "freeze" of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories as called for in the "road map".

Successive Israeli governments have implicitly, if not openly, endorsed the Jewish communities that have gradually moved into slices of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Such settlement activity is considered illegal under international law but condemnation and diplomacy have failed to stop it.

The number of settlers has almost doubled since the Oslo peace accords of the early 1990s to about 200,000 settlers in the territories and another 200,000 in east Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war. They are surrounded by 3.3m often hostile Palestinians.

"The settlements are the crown jewels of the occupation and Israel would have to expend a lot of political capital to end them," says Geoffrey Aronson of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace. "They are an extraordinary achievement - but it's always almost impossible to hold Israel

The Yesha Council, which represents Jewish communities in Gaza and Judea and the West Bank, sees its mission as "fulfilling the historical charge of
rebuilding the land while simultaneously serving as a crucial protective zone for the population centres along the coastal plain".

The Geneva Convention, which the settlers dispute, prohibits an occupying power from moving civilians into territory that it has taken. Israel has used
a variety of means to seize territories, such as confiscating areas for military purposes and declaring land owned by "absentee" landlords as "state

In addition to freezing settlements, the road map also calls for the dismantling of "illegal outposts", which often consist of a few caravans on
isolated hilltops. Previous attempts to remove these have provoked violence between settlers and the Israeli army, whose troops are privately disgruntled at having to provide security for them.

Yosef Paritsky, the infrastructure minister, who belongs to the staunchly secularist Shinui party, has drawn attention to the blurred lines of legality
in the territories. "I am checking out how the illegal outposts were connected to electricity and water, which are owned by the state," he says. "I simply do not understand how this was allowed to happen."

Ariel Sharon is considered an important architect of the settlements, having facilitated their growth through a number of ministries since the 1970s. He
recently pr ovoked the anger of the Yesha Council as well as his rightwing coalition partners when he said peace negotiations with the Palestinians might involve giving up some Biblical lands, such as Bethlehem and Beit El. "I know that we will have to part with some of these places," Mr Sharon said. "As a Jew, this agonizes me."

But few Palestinians or diplomats believe Mr Sharon could ever be forced to dismantle anything other than a few symbolic outposts. So far, the Palestinians have failed to mobilise international opinion in their favour.

"If you look at the road map, what penalty does Israel pay if it doesn't freeze the settlements? The road map calls for monitoring but there is no
dearth of information. None of the quartet members intends to carry out intrusive enforcement," says Mr Aronson. He points to the Israeli evacuation
of 5,000 settlers from the Sinai in the wake of a comprehensive peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 as an example. Given the political and economic investment in the settlements, he believes their evacuation should be part of final status negotiations. "The whole focus of the road map on interim measures is flawed. It's a peace process put together by committee not geared to ending the problem."

Copyright Financial Times Limited 2003. All Rights Reserved.

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