TRACTS OF PALESTINIAN LAND, OBVIATING STATEHOOD
Panellist Says of Israeli Policies,
‘One Hand Speaks Peace and the Other Builds Settlements’
Moreover, said Kamal Hossain of Bangladesh, Jurist and former member of the Inquiry Commission of the then United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the settlements were also intended to ensure that a genuinely sovereign Palestinian State never emerged in the Occupied Territory.
The subject of the first plenary was “illegal construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land: the reality on the ground”. It focused on the expansion of settlements since the Oslo Accords; the adverse consequences of the wall on occupied land; and the impact of settlement building on the human rights and humanitarian situation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Joining Mr. Hossain were Mahathir Mohamad, former Prime Minister of Malaysia; Gideon Levy, Columnist for Haaretz; Ray Dolphin, Humanitarian Affairs Officer and barrier specialist in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem; and Diana Buttu, Joint Fellow with the Middle East Initiative and Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Programme.
It was current practice to distort and deny the apparently unchanging character of Israeli activity, Mr. Hossain said. Having been part of a fact-finding mission, he said that unless one saw the bullets flying overhead, or the Palestinian family waiting more than an hour at a crossing, then it would be impossible to understand the reality on the ground. Israelis persisted in their self-serving strategy because they were indulged by powerful segments of the international community, which themselves were vulnerable to internal domestic and political compulsions and lobbies.
They were a “very deep strategy, very well thought out, premeditated, underlying strategic goal”, which would redraw the map, he said. Settlements were illegal under international humanitarian law, they were built on confiscated Palestinian-owned land and they were turning the Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank into unconnected Bantustans whose map looked like Swiss cheese or leopard skin.
Yet, despite the international community’s repeated calls and the illegality of the settlements, Israel continued to expand them, and impunity for settler violence persisted, he said. As for what could be done, he said the situation was a challenge to humanity and to the 193 United Nations Member States. But one way to fight falsehood was to reaffirm the truth — as many times as the falsehood was asserted. The United Nations did that; its words should be a basis for actions.
The Asia region, he said, had mobilized against colonization, discrimination and injustice, and in Africa, apartheid had finally yielded to a coherent movement. He drew inspiration from that, urging the Asia and Pacific region and beyond to mobilize support in communities and on campuses to bolster the international effort, perhaps by boycotting goods produced in the settlements. It was critical that those in that region spur support for Israel’s compliance with its obligations, he added.
Mr. Mohamad focused his remarks on the rule of law. He was horrified that the very countries that had created the United Nations had no respect for it — acting unilaterally regardless of the position of its Member States. Israel was a creature of the United Nations, and it behove it to adhere to international law. If there was any dispute, it was up to the parties to go back to the United Nations, and once a decision was made, it must be respected. But Israel completely ignored the Organization that had created it.
Citing disputes settled by the International Court of Justice between Malaysia and Singapore, and between Malaysia and Indonesia, he said the parties might have disagreed with the ruling, but they accepted it. That was the way all nations should behave. If they did otherwise, they should be prepared to go to war. As for Israeli settlements, some countries that did not recognize Israel’s statehood were willing to do so, but not in the face of ongoing settlement activity. It was also about time to recognize that there was a Palestinian State, he added.
Mr. Levy asserted that the settlements were “a huge success story” of the Zionist project. The goal had been to make any kind of solution or petition impossible. So the settlements succeeded and the Israeli peace camp had lost the battle, with 500,000 to 600,000 settlers. The Israeli occupation was a unique phenomenon. There had been more brutal occupations in history, and some had been longer, but never had there been an occupation where the occupier felt so good, so just, and presented itself as the victim. Try telling the Israelis that the Israeli army was not the most moral in the world. Five million Israelis felt they knew more than anyone else about the law, and they believed that the settlements were the “most legal phenomenon on Earth, maybe even the most moral one”.
He said that brainwashing, which included a whole campaign of dehumanizing and demonizing the Palestinians, enabled the occupation to endure without any doubts in Israel. Now, occupation was no longer on the Israeli agenda, and peace had stopped being an issue. Israelis believed the world was against them no matter what they did — if they were criticized, it was anti-Semitic, so they were not responsible for anything. International law, for them, was anti-Semitic, so why bother to follow it, he said. Thus, Israelis created rules of their own. That combined with a deeply rooted belief following the Holocaust that they were the chosen people created a reality whereby neither international law nor international organizations were relevant.
But the real litmus test, he said, was the settlements. The day Israel declared them illegal and started evacuating them was the day the world would know Israel meant peace. Until that day, which seemed very far away, “don’t believe it where one hand speaks peace and the other builds settlements”, he said. Many Israelis supported the two-State solution, but only a tiny minority supported a freeze in settlement construction. “Don’t expect much from Israeli society in the coming future. Life is quite good. Violence and terrorism are almost non-existent,” he said. Settlements and occupation did not bother them — they were interested in the next vacation, or the next jeep. Most Israelis living in settlements did so because it was affordable housing. Only the hard-core, the minority, were there to “run the movement”, he added.
Mr. Dolphin, turning to the humanitarian impact of the separation wall on Palestinians in the West Bank, said the wall, if completed, would be 700 kilometres long. To put that in perspective, the Green Line was 320 kilometres in length. The barrier would cut through 9.4 per cent of the West Bank, and all of East Jerusalem would be on the western, or Israeli, side. The land involved was some of the most important agricultural areas and greater Jerusalem.
The wall was about 62 per cent complete, he said, adding that construction had slowed in recent years, but last week, the Israeli official in charge of the wall said building would continue very soon in the Bethlehem area and, later, around Jerusalem. As for the impact on the Palestinians, many were trapped between the wall and the Green Line.
Recalling the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, he said it had not been about the wall as such, but it said that Israel had the right, in fact the duty, to protect its citizens, but that that should be in conformity with international law. If the wall was built inside the Green Line, it would be in line with international law, but that was not the case. Because the barrier went so deeply into the West Bank, some 7,000 to 8,000 Palestinians were in a “strange limbo” — caught between the wall and the Green Line. The most important impact of the wall, if completed, would be the tens of thousands of farmers affected. The wall affected eight of the West Bank’s governorates.
As for the link between the wall and the settlements, he said that if construction went as planned, 71 of 150 settlements in the West Bank would be encircled, and about 400,000 of the 500,000 West Bank settlers would be on the Israeli side and effectively “annexed” to Israel. The International Court of Justice had said that Israel should cease construction and dismantle the wall. Two weeks after that advisory opinion, a General Assembly resolution unanimously called on Israel to comply with the opinion. All European Union member countries had supported the text, yet none had followed up on it.
Many in Israel had thought the wall had staunched the suicide bombings, but according to Israeli statistics, last year, about 15,000 Palestinian workers had entered Israel illegally, which meant the wall was not likely the reason for the decline in suicide bombs. Furthermore, the wall was increasingly separating East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, effectively redrawing Jerusalem’s geographic realities. Upwards of 80,000 East Jerusalem residents were now cut off from their own city, due to the wall, and there was no sewage removal or garbage collection. Farmers were cut off from their fields and had to go through checkpoints and gates to access their lands.
Presently, he continued, approximately 7,500 Palestinians were caught between the Green Line and the wall, he said, adding that if building went as planned, nearly 30,000 would be in that situation and require permits to live in their own homes. To access health centres on the Palestinian side, Palestinians had to pass through checkpoints and gates, as well as for education and family visits. Gates were opened two or three times a day and when they closed in the afternoon, farmers had to return, making it impossible for them to irrigate their lands overnight. He said all barrier construction must cease.
Putting settlements in a historical perspective, Ms. Buttu said there was more to Israel than settlements and its actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The idea behind it was the creation of a Jewish State, not a State of all its citizens. In order to become a Jewish State, it had to expel those who were not Jewish. That had given rise to the Palestinian refugees. That process, which had begun in 1948, would continue with the Israeli settlement project, which was an attempt to replace one people with another. Israel was trying to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible, to contain the risk while retaining as much Palestinian land as it could.
Thus, she said, a discussion about settlements was not just a discussion about physical structures. Moreover, housing units brought people, which brought roads and schools, then a military presence to protect the roads that protected the settlers. There were checkpoints to protect the military and a wall to protect the checkpoints, and so forth. An entire maze of restrictions had sprung up that led to near-complete physical control — nearly 60 per cent — of the West Bank. There were also more invisible aspects, such as the permit regime and a dual legal system — civilian law for Israelis and Israeli military law for Palestinians.
The hope was that the settlements would “somehow go away, that they were a temporary measure, that they could be undone”, as was the thinking with the occupation, she said. But the reality was that unless there were international measures to reverse the occupation then it would continue for a “very, very long time”. She often heard about the window of opportunity closing on the two-State solution. At what point did one say that window had closed? “It’s not just a question of undoing physical structures, but of changing Israel’s mindset,” she said. Politically, settlements had come full circle, by being illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention to being an obstacle to peace to not being a question of legality or illegality, in the case of the present United States Administration, but of “illegitimate” activity.
The message being sent, she said, was that it was okay to build and expand the settlements. In 1993, when the peace process first began, there had been 180,000 Israeli settlers. That number had more than doubled in seven years, as if the peace process had given Israel a “green light” to build and expand. Today, there were 600,000 settlers. In none of Israel’s proposals was there a suggestion to completely scale back the settlements. Instead, there was a push by Israel to have the Palestinians “somehow accommodate these illegal settlements”. Those were the “land swaps”, instead of the 1967 borders.
For Israel, she said, if it continued to build and expand, the international community would eventually sign on. “The more you build, the more you expand, the more Palestinians will have to capitulate, and there will not be peace.” All of that was illegal; what was missing was a push by the international community. “The time has now come to make this a measure of decolonization”, to completely and squarely submit that all the settlements were illegal, “each and every one”, she said.
In the ensuing discussion in which several representatives from the region participated, the possibility of sanctions was raised, either against products from the settlements or against Israel itself. The United States’ role was also the subject of many questions, particularly concerning that country’s backing of Israel and its own domestic lobby. One speaker asked whether the panel felt it was the United States’ military and diplomatic support of Israel that was the main barrier to any change in the status quo. He said the Obama Administration had promised “a new day” in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict; now he wondered whether the Israeli-American axis remained central to the problem.
A panellist pointed to the Israeli-United States “axis”, agreeing that much of what went on in Israel was based on support from the United States. It had been said that Israel ruled the world by proxy and that that proxy was the United States. It was a case of the tail wagging the dog. The United States was doing Israel’s bidding, and even if that delegation was not represented there, he was sure everyone was looking over their shoulder to be sure. The Jewish lobby in the United States, in the media, film industry, finance and Government was also cited, as was what the panellist called the “reluctance” of United States Presidents to condemn Israeli actions. That backing made Israel feel it could do as it pleased.
Another panellist said settlements were fully integrated in Israel, and they were not a separate economy. Sanctions on Israel as a whole, however, might be considered. She said the sheer number of people at this conference was illustrative of the sense of hope. The picture was bleak, but people daily went out and resisted the occupation.
The point was also made that if people were blinded to the suffering of their neighbours, they could not be expected to feel the impact of those victims on the other side of the world. The Palestinian issue must be made relevant, to the United States, to the countries of the Asia and Pacific region, and so forth. What was going on in Israel was not affecting only the Israelis and Palestinians; it had wider implications. For one thing, peace in the Middle East affected all.