Israel defends settlement expansion
The Israeli construction of 900 housing units in occupied East Jerusalem is part of a "routine building programme", an aide to the prime minister has said in reaction to US criticism.
The aide's comments came on Wednesday after Washington said it was "dismayed" by Israel's decision to approve the building at the Gilo settlement, despite a reported request from Washington that construction be halted.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, sees Gilo as "an integral part of Jerusalem" and does not typically review municipal building plans, the aide said.
"Construction in Gilo has taken place regularly for dozens of years and there is nothing new about the current planning and construction."
The Palestinians have made the settlement issue central to efforts to restart stalled peace talks, demanding that all construction is halted before they sit down with the Israelis.
Barack Obama, the US president, warned on Wednesday that any settlement activity not only made harmed attempts to get negotiations going again, it could also threaten Israel's security.
"I think that additional settlement building does not contribute to Israel's security, I think it makes it harder for them to make peace with their neighbours," he told Fox News.
"I think it embitters the Palestinians in a way that could end up being very dangerous."
The Palestinians, Europe and the UN have also heavily criticised the expansion of the settlement, outlined in blueprints published by a government commission on Tuesday.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the spokesperson for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, told Al Jazeera: "Israel wants, through its actions, to secure the invalidity of establishing an independent Palestinian state.
"The international community's continued acceptance of these Israeli measures threatens stability in the region and the foundations of peace we seek."
Gilo sits on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed to its Jerusalem municipality.
Under international law, all Israeli settlements built on occupied land are illegal.
Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland in Jerusalem said: "What we are seeing is Israel's strategy of trying to differentiate between East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied West Bank.
"We have seen the government repeatedly claim that Jerusalem is its so-called united capital and the government said just today that whereas it planned to exercise what it called maximum restraint in the West Bank, it claimed that Jerusalem was a different case."
Palestinians hurt in Gaza raid
At least seven Palestinians have been injured in a round of Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip, Palestinian witnesses say.
They told Al Jazeera that the first raid hit a metal workshop in the Tufah district of Gaza City early on Sunday, while the second struck a workshop in Burij in central Gaza.
The Israeli army confirmed the attacks, with a spokesman saying that they were launched in response to a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on Saturday.
The rocket landed near the southern city of Sderot, causing no damage or casualties.
The Israeli army said it was targeting two factories used to make weapons, as well as a smuggling tunnel under the border with Egypt.
Tuesday, 24 November 2009
Funny Business of Israeli Settlements and Palestinian State
Egypt: Israel must stop settlement
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has told his Israeli counterpart construction work on land taken from Palestinians in 1967 must stop if there is to be peace.
Speaking at a press conference following their meeting on Sunday, Mubarak said he had made it clear to Shimon Peres that settlement in occupied lands, including East Jerusalem, was a major obstacle to any final peace agreement.
"I say peace is still possible. But there is a need for the political will in Israel ... [it] realises the dangers of losing this peace opportunity. It needs to take courageous decisions," he said.
Egypt and other Arabs have blamed the US administration for not doing enough to press Israel to stop building on occupied territory.
Israel to suspend settlement growth
Israel's prime minister has announced a 10-month suspension to the construction of new settlement houses in the occupied West Bank.
Binyamin Netanyahu told a news conference on Wednesday that he declared the limited halt "out of broad national interests with the aim of encouraging negotiations with our Palestinian neighbours".
"When the period of freeze ends my government will return to the previous policy of building in Judea and Samaria," Netanyahu said, using the Jewish names for the occupied West Bank.
The Israeli proposal excludes areas of the West Bank that Israel annexed to its Jerusalem municipality after occupying the territory in the 1967 Middle East war and building projects already under way.
Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland, reporting from Jerusalem, said that the suspension would only apply to "new residential permits and new residential starts".
"We are only talking about housing here. This freeze does not apply to public buildings such as schools or police stations or whatever, and it also means any existing building permits that have been granted they will go ahead," she said.
"Any construction which has already begun, any construction sites where the cement mixers are already whirring and the cranes are at work they will continue."
A spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, earlier dismissed the Israeli plan after details of it were outlined in a statement from Netanyahu's office.
"Any return to negotiations must be on the basis of a complete settlement freeze, and in Jerusalem foremost," Nabil Abu Rdainah said.
Referring to Jerusalem in Wednesday's news conference, Netanyahu said: "My position it is well known, I do not impose any restriction on building in Jerusalem."
The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas, has refused to return to peace talks with the Israelis until Netanyahu orders a complete freeze to all settlement building work in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Before Netanyahu's news conference, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, told the security cabinet that the proposal was an attempt to "keep open a window to the resumption of the negotiation process" with the Palestinians.
"Israel is strong and determined, but time is not necessarily on our side, and it is important to move towards two states for two people, through agreement. All other options are much worse," he said.
Washington has been pressing Israel to freeze settlement construction in order to allow the talks, which have been on hold since Israel launched its 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip last year, to resume.
Mixed US reaction
George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, called the 10-month suspension "significant".
"It falls short of a full settlement freeze, but it is more than any Israeli government has done before," he said.
"As President Obama has said many times, we believe that a two-state solution to the conflict is the best way to realise the shared goal of Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security.
"That's why we have urged the Palestinians to expand and improve their security efforts. And it's why we've urged Israel to stop settlement activity."
The Palestinians and the US had previously dismissed an Israeli proposal that would have seen a halt to new settlement construction, but allow what Israel calls "natural growth" to provide for settlers as their population rose.
Al Jazeera's Nour Odeh, reporting from the West Bank town of Ramallah, said that Washington's apparent softening on the issue in recent weeks had "deeply disappointed the Palestinian public and the Palestinian president".
"There was a lot of hope attached to this Obama presidency," she said.
"A lot of people really believed his statements and his promises that the Obama administration would be balanced and that it would really seek a firm start to a political process that would lead to Palestinian statehood within two years.
"Now most Palestinians, if not all, feel let down."
About 500,000 Jews live in the West Bank and annexed areas around Jerusalem alongside 2.7 million Palestinians.
Palestinians say the settlements deny them the possibility of a viable state by cutting off Palestinian areas from each other.
Palestinians warned over UN move
Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, has warned the Palestinian leadership against any attempts to unilaterally declare statehood for the Gaza Strip, the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
West Bank-based Palestinian officials said on Sunday that they were preparing to ask the United Nations Security Council to declare their backing for the Palestinian quest for an independent state.
In a radio address on Sunday evening, Netanyahu said: "There is no substitute for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
"Any unilateral action would only unravel the framework of agreements between us and can only lead to one-sided steps on the part of Israel."
Netanyahu did not specify what "steps" Israel could take, but Israeli legal experts have said that if the Palestinians were to move forward on their own then Israel could cancel interim peace accords.
"Israel could say there has been such a gross and major violation that the agreement itself is no longer in force," Robbie Sabel, a former legal adviser to Israel's foreign ministry, told The Associated Press news agency.
Interim accords agreed by the two sides set up a system of interlocking administrations that falls far short of peaceful relations but brings some order to issues like Palestinian imports and exports, tax collection, utilities and security co-operation.
The Palestinian Authority, which is led by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is itself is a product of the interim accords.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that the Palestinians had decided to turn to the UN due to frustration at the lack of progress peace talks, which have been stalled since Israel launched 22-day offensive in Gaza last December.
"Now is our defining moment. We went into this peace process in order to achieve a two-state solution," the Associated Press news agency quoted him as saying.
"The endgame is to tell the Israelis that now the international community has recognised the two-state solution on the '67 borders."
Israel captured and occupied larges areas of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East war, and the Palestinians want to form their state based on the borders agreed by a ceasefire before then.
"They are not looking for a unilateral declaration of independence, they have already done that on November 15, 1988," Al Jazeera's Nour Odeh, reporting from Ramallah, said.
"What they want is something a lot more concrete," she said.
"They know it won't immediately result in the withdrawal of Israeli occupation troops from their territory, but they want the Israelis to stand in front of an international collective will that says this is what needs to be done in order for peace to be realised."
Combating Israeli settlements in the supermarkets
They are illegal, a contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, "dangerous", "concerning"; they are Israel's illegal settlements, built forcefully on occupied and mostly privately-owned Palestinian land.
The Israeli settlement regime has occupied forty per cent and counting of the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Successive Israeli governments have offered Israeli settlers financial, logistical, and security support to create this reality that has now driven Palestinians to the brink of despair.
Over half a million Israelis now live in approximately 200 Israeli settlements in Palestinians' midst, prospering and ever-growing while Palestinians suffer increasing restrictions to protect these settlements.
These restrictions include banning thousands of Palestinian farmers from accessing their farms and lands because of their proximity to the settlements; confiscating lands and property privately owned by Palestinians; banning Palestinians from travelling on what became Israeli-only roads; and according to the UN, the list goes on.
Settlements: Grabbing land, and Palestinian market share
Aside from taking Palestinian land, these settlements also house factories and agricultural industries.
Their products are ending up on Palestinian shelves and Palestinians are inadvertently contributing to the growth of these industries and the settlements.
But the Palestinian government is striking back at these industries, which it says sustain the Israeli settlement enterprise and perpetuate the occupation.
I spent three hours in one of Ramallah’s supermarkets trying to figure out which of the hundreds of Israeli products are settlement products.
I spoke to some customers, like Khaled, who told me: "You have to really be careful and investigate to know whether a product was produced inside Israel or in a settlement."
Others, like Rima, had no idea. She started inspecting the groceries in her basket when I asked her she could have settlement products there.
"I had no idea she said; this is so ironic."
The ministry of economy has announced it will aggressively pursue an already existing law that criminalises trading in settlement products.
The government has decided to activate an already existing law that criminalizes trading in settlement products, trying offenders in a military court for what the law considers a threat to Palestinian national security.
Dr Hasan Abu Libdeh, the minister of national economy told me: "The ministry will have to play the most substantial role in making sure that we do not play a part in the economic sustainability of the settlements. We think the Palestinian market should be clean totally from settlement activity in terms of the economy."
Reports suggest that Israeli settlement products enjoy an estimated 15 per cent share of the Palestinian market. Palestinians now say this is unacceptable and must change.
The Palestinian government says it has no plans to ban products produced inside Israel proper, even though Israel has made the entry of Palestinian products into the Israeli market extremely difficult.
But they believe this undertaking, to actually get rid of settlement products from the shelves, will take time and require awareness among Palestinian consumers.
But through this boycott, which is gaining international support especially in Europe, Palestinians say, they are now striking back at the illegal settlements – product by product.
US 'dismay' at Israel over Gilo plan
• Controversial settlement expansion criticised
• Obama's efforts to resume negotiations undermined
Israel 'personally attacking human rights group' after Gaza war criticism
Human Rights Watch denies having political agenda or seeking funds from Saudi Arabia
America's leading human rights organisation has accused Israel and its supporters of an "organised campaign" of false allegations and misinformation, including "extremely personal attacks" on its staff, in an attempt to discredit the group over its reports of war crimes in Gaza.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) ties the campaign – which has included accusations that the group's reports on the Jewish state are written by "anti-Israel ideologues" and that it has sought funds from Saudi Arabia – to a statement by a senior official in the Israeli prime minister's office in June pledging to "dedicate time and manpower to combating" human rights organisations.
The criticism began with Israeli pressure groups and rightwing blogs, but in recent weeks it has drawn the support of influential individuals such as Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize winner, and HRW's own founder, Robert Bernstein, who said the organisation's reports were "helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state". He called on HRW to focus more on abuses by Arab governments.
Iain Levine, HRW's programme director, said that while the organisation had long attracted criticism, in recent months there had been significant attempts to intimidate and discredit it.
"I really hesitate to use words like conspiracy, but there is a feeling that there is an organised campaign, and we're seeing from different places what would appear to be co-ordinated attacks ... from some of the language and arguments used it would seem as if there has been discussion," he said."We are having to spend a lot of time repudiating the lies, the falsehoods, the misinformation."
Spearheading some of the criticism is NGO Monitor in Jerusalem, an Israeli group funded by wealthy US donors which includes Wiesel on its advisory board. It has accused HRW staff of having a "political agenda" to attack Israel.
Criticism has particularly focused on the director of HRW's Middle East division, Sarah Leah Whitson, over a visit to Saudi Arabia.
NGO Monitor accused Whitson of attempting to raise money from Saudi officials by highlighting HRW's criticism of Israel, a charge also made in a comment piece for the Wall Street Journal online that was subsequently widely distributed by the most powerful of the pro-Israel lobby groups, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). Shortly afterwards, the director of policy planning in the Israeli prime minister's office, Ron Dermer, denounced Human Rights Watch.
"We are going to dedicate time and manpower to combating these groups; we are not going to be sitting ducks in a pond for the human rights groups to shoot at us with impunity," he said.
Levine said that Whitson's visit to Saudi Arabia was similar to trips by other HRW officials to Tokyo, Johannesburg and Tel Aviv to win the support of individuals interested in supporting human rights in their own countries and abroad.
"This idea that somehow the Saudi government is going to be able to influence us is nonsense. It's a cardinal principle of the organisation that we don't take government money," he said.
But Levine added that Dermer's threat marked the escalation of the campaign against HRW.
"It was clear that you had a new government in Israel under Binyamin Netanyahu with a harder right approach. He certainly recognised that the criticisms of Israeli conduct in Gaza from a humanitarian law perspective was extremely politically damaging," he said.
Levine said he believes many of the attacks were aimed at distracting attention from the report of the UN investigator, Richard Goldstone, which was highly critical of Israel's killing of civilians in its three-week attack on Gaza that started last December. Goldstone is a former member of the HRW board and the group has strongly backed his report.
"We have been under enormous pressure and tremendous attacks, some of them very personal, as have been the attacks against Richard Goldstone with really vituperative language used to describe him: obsequious Jew, self-loathing Jew and all the rest of it," said Levine.
HRW came under renewed criticism last month from its founder, Robert Bernstein, in an opinion article in the New York Times in which he accused it of criticising Israel more than undemocratic governments in the rest of the Middle East.
"Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organisations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields," he wrote.
Bernstein accused HRW of basing its accusations against Israel on the testimony of Palestinian "witnesses whose stories cannot be verified and who may testify for political advantage or because they fear retaliation from their own rulers".
Levine said that Bernstein went public only after the HRW board rejected his call for a change in direction.
A few days later, Wiesel and others published a letter in the Guardian drawing attention to Bernstein's article, accusing HRW of playing a "destructive role" and calling for a review by the organisation's board.
In September, HRW was shaken by accusations that its military expert and collector of war memorabilia, Marc Garlasco, is a Nazi sympathiser after describing an SS jacket as "so cool" in comments on a blog. Both he and HRW vigorously deny the charge, but Garlasco has been suspended pending an investigation.
At the time, Levine called the attacks on Garlasco the latest salvo in the Israeli government's campaign "to eliminate the space for legitimate criticism" of the Israeli military.
Settler defends West Bank murders
Kill Enemy Children: Jewish Edict
Jewish directors challenge Israel
Gaza war widows struggle to survive
Israeli military gives settlers free rein
The IDF is offering ever more support to settlers as its influence by religious-nationalist politics increases
During a swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem last Thursday, two soldiers held up a banner that sparked a wave of condemnation by soldiers and civilians alike. The slogan on the banner – "Shimshon [Brigade] does not evacuate Homesh" – referred to the prospect of the soldiers being ordered to evict settlers from an illegal outpost on the site of the former Homesh settlement.
Homesh was dismantled during the disengagement of 2005 but since then settlers have repeatedly returned to the site and erected makeshift homes, asserting their claim of a God-given right to live there, as well as throughout the rest of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).
On the surface, the IDF's decision to jail the protesting pair suggests a refusal to bow to insubordination within the army's ranks. But set against the wider context of army collusion and co-operation with settler activists, it is hard to regard the verdict as ushering in a new dawn of tough love towards the settler movement. It is more likely that army chiefs disapproved of the troops' particularly public display of support for the settlers, rather than the underlying sentiment they expressed.
Given that the resettlement of Homesh has taken place under the benevolent gaze of the IDF, there is no doubt that the military authorities are still prepared to turn a blind eye to the disobedience of settlers and their supporters – so long it happens in the relative obscurity of the West Bank, rather than in the heart of Jerusalem in full view of both press and public.
I was part of the initial evacuation of Homesh during my army service, and our unit was split by many of the religious members of my brigade refusing to participate – a stance that the Shimshon soldiers this week threatened to repeat. However, instead of standing up to the mutiny, our commanders gave them the kid glove treatment. Their anxiety to avoid an internal confrontation overrode their adherence to army guidelines.
Likewise, every time I witness settlers assaulting and abusing Palestinians in the West Bank, soldiers are always on hand to provide armed cover for the attackers, refusing to intervene on the victims' behalf, and revealing the true level of support the army continues to offer to the settler camp. Such actions speak far louder than the words spouted this week by Major General Avi Mizrahi, who said: "We must ensure that the IDF is not dragged into the political discourse and guard against the creation of factionalism in the military, which is the people's military."
Not only is the IDF dragged into the political discourse day after day, but the army has also been riven by factional splits for years, largely as a result of the infusion of religious dogma into what was, and should remain, a secular institution of the state. As noted by the leader of the New Movement-Meretz party, "instead of religious Zionism adopting the values of the IDF and the country, the IDF and country are adopting the values of religious Zionism, in its nationalist and orthodox version. If this trend continues, the IDF may be transformed from an army of the people to Phalangists carrying religious artefacts."
Furthermore, a Guardian interview with army judge Adrian Agassi reveals in even more detail the influence of religious-nationalist politics on the IDF when it comes to the military's treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Agassi, who has a long history of supporting land confiscations from Palestinian owners, declared that the ancient land of Israel was "given to us by the Bible, not by some United Nations", and that "if we would have named it the State of Jews [rather than the State of Israel], the Arabs would have understood that this land belongs to the Jews".
In his eyes, implanting Jewish settlers across the West Bank is more important than all other biblical commandments, and only when it is done can they have "a promised land and a promised life". With lawyers and judges such as himself at the helm of the military legislature, settler leaders are unlikely to be losing much sleep over the prospect of any serious threat to their wave of illegal construction and land-grabs, despite the slaps on the wrist for the two banner-wielding Shimshon soldiers.
While the rest of Israel fiddles, the West Bank continues to burn – both literally, in the scores of cases of settlers setting fire to the crops and homes of Palestinian farmers, and metaphorically, as the prospects for peaceful resolution go up in smoke the longer the settlers are given free rein to thumb their noses at the law and run riot in the area. On ground level, as well as in the political arena, the authorities seem perfectly content to offer the occasional fig leaf to international pressure to clamp down on the settlers, while never implementing concrete measures to end the overall injustice. Who this charade is fooling is anyone's guess, but the longer it continues, the more certain it becomes that the state's kowtowing to the settlers is driving yet another nail into the peace process's coffin.
Israel 'cutting Palestinian water'
Israel is denying Palestinians adequate access to clean, safe water while allowing almost unlimited supplies to Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, human rights group Amnesty International has said.
"Swimming pools, well-watered lawns and large irrigated farms in Israeli settlements... stand in stark contrast next to Palestinian villages whose inhabitants struggle even to meet their domestic water needs," the group said in a report released on Tuesday.
Amnesty said between 180,000 and 200,000 Palestinians in West Bank rural communities have no access to running water, while taps in other areas often run dry.
"Israel allows the Palestinians access to only a fraction of the shared water resources, which lie mostly in the occupied West Bank", Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty researcher, said.
Israel's daily water consumption per capita is four times higher than the 70 litre per person consumed in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, according to the report entitled: Troubled waters - Palestinians denied fair access to water