When it comes to discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the renewal of peace talks, it seems everyone holds an uncompromising opinion. However, in the midst of the emotion and sentiment, many of us lose face of the basic core issues at the heart of the conflict, and their respective nuances.
It is now prudent, as negotiations recommence in the Middle East, that we go back to the basics and provide an overview of the final status issues being discussed behind closed doors.
It would be an understatement to say that the international media is obsessed with the issue of the West Bank and Jewish settlements. Indeed, Jewish presence in the West Bank and the expansion of settlements both past and present is condemned on the international stage. But truthfully, many of us are unaware of what the issue of land swaps and settlements is really all about.
THE CENTRAL ISSUES
THE WEST BANK AND JEWISH SETTLEMENTS; A BASIC OVERVIEW
The Oslo Accords of the early 1990’s ushered an increased focus to Israeli presence in the West Bank. The Accords, set out as a future framework for negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, deferred core final status issues such as the issue of settlements, Jerusalem and the law of return for Palestinians to be determined in five years during the final status talks.
The 1995 sequel to Oslo, “Oslo II”, delineated the territories of the West Bank into three areas – A, B and C. Areas A and B are controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which Area C falls under Israeli jurisdiction.
Area A is marked by major Palestinian cities, towns and highly populated areas, while Area B is home mainly to smaller Palestinian villages. Israel operates security in PA-controlled Area B, and also retains control of Area C.
According to Oslo II, there are no prohibitions or restrictions regarding Israeli settlement build-up or construction in Area C, which is home to Israeli settlements and military installations, and which (with the exception of Jerusalem) does not contain major Palestinian population centres.
Unfortunately, the Oslo process never achieved its initials aims and the final status of the West Bank is yet to be determined.
Politically, the West Bank is best regarded as territory over which there are competing claims which should be resolved in peace process negotiations. Israel has valid claims to title in this territory based not only on its historic and religious connection to the land, and its recognised security needs, but also on the fact that the territory was not under the sovereignty of any state and came under Israeli control in a war of self-defence, imposed upon Israel. At the same time, Israel recognises that the Palestinians also entertain legitimate claims to the area. Indeed, the very fact that the parties have agreed to conduct negotiations on settlements indicate that they envisage a compromise on this issue. Contrary to public denunciation, evacuations of settlements in the Sinai after the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 and theunilateral disengagement from all settlements in Gaza in 2005show that Israel is capable of this.
THE E1 CORRIDOR; WHAT IS IT AND WHY IS IT SO CONTROVERSIAL?
E1 (derived from “East 1”) is a term applied by the Ministry of Housing to an area located just east of the Jerusalem municipal boundary, on the hills between Ma’aleh Adummim and Jerusalem.
In early December 2012, the Israeli government announced plans for increased construction of 3,000 housing units in sections of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In addition to new housing units, plans are being considered for construction in area E-1, a small plot of land (roughly 7 kilometres) between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim.
The E1 corridor is a point of great division. Plans to build settlements in the area are strongly opposed by Palestinians, who say the development will cut the West Bank in two, preventing the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.
Some critics have argued that building in E-1 would make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible, preventing the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem from direct access to Jerusalem. This is not the case, and the creation of an access road around Ma’ale Adumim’s eastern side would provide Palestinians access to eastern Jerusalem from other parts of the West Bank.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN PRACTICALLY?
That international bodies (including the EU and UN), as well as the international press, lump the Jewish settlements under one broad umbrella term, is completely misleading.
In the region surrounding Jerusalem, many areas considered “settlements” are neighbourhoods in Jerusalem that have grown organically as the city itself has expanded in size and population.
Many of the settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim, Efrat and Betar Illit are huge cities, and homes to tens of thousands of residents. Ma’ale Adumim, the West Bank’s biggest Jewish settlement for example, has over 40,000 residents and is considered a suburb of Israel’s capital, barely a ten minute drive away.
An opinion piece published by the Jerusalem Post says that “consecutive governments on the Left and on the Right have understood the strategic importance of maintaining control over Ma’ale Adumim, as well as E1.”
It continues “without control over E1, Palestinian building could cut off Ma’aleh Adumim – a city with a population of 40,000 – from the capital; it could also undermine Israel’s access to the Jerusalem-Jericho road, of critical strategic importance for transport of troops and equipment from Jerusalem eastward and northward via the Jordan Rift Valley.’
I recommend you read an article written by Jonathan Tobin in Commentary magazine. He gives a great historical account of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, and debunks the unfounded view that Jewish settlement in the West Bank is solely obstructing the peace process
Tobin says: “The settlement’s legality wouldn’t stop Israel from evacuating any place conceded in a peace deal. But so long as the Palestinians are encouraged to believe they can uproot all of the Jews, including those living in the Jewish settlement built on the outskirts of Jaffa a century ago that is now known as Tel Aviv, it won’t matter what the legal scholars say about any of this.”
He continues “The obstacle to peace is the Palestinian belief that the Jewish presence throughout the country — including pre-1967 Israel — is illegitimate.”
MAJOR POINTS OF DIVISION
– LAND SWAPS
The Palestinians, confirmed by Abbas last week and bolstered by international backing, have made their claims clear- they want their future state to have borders approximating the boundaries of the West Bank, adjacent East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip; in essence a return to the 1967 borders.
However, many people from both the right and left, seem to agree that from a pragmatic perspective, it is highly unlikely that these large settlements will ever be evacuated. Realistically, only Israel’s more peripheral settlements will be ‘handed over’ should a peace deal be finalized.
Further, Netanyahu says any peace accord must safeguard Israel, which is still being hit with rockets from Hamas in Gaza, despite unilaterally withdrawing from all settlements in 2005.
At the same time, however, for the first time Prime Minister Netanyahu also publicly said that if the Israelis and Palestinians did reach a final peace deal, “some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.” Indeed this indicates progress from the Prime Minister.
It is within this context that an article in the Jewish Daily Forward raises the obvious question: “Had the matter of borders and territory been given over, what incentive would they (Palestinians) have had to make concessions on the matter of refugees or Jerusalem?” I suggest you keep reading…
– A NON-MILITARIZED PALESTINIAN STATE?
Israel and the United States have called for a “non-militarized” Palestinian state – meaning the future state of Palestine would have no army. Furthermore, Netanyahu called for a continued Israel military presence in the Jordan Valley.
Israeli spokesman, Marc Regev cited many examples of sovereign states with foreign forces on their territory, such as Japan and Korea, both of which consented to the troops in treaties. The government has previously said it wants to maintain a military presence in the West Bank at the border with Jordan “to prevent any influx of weapons that could be used against it.”
However, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said that retaining troops in this region would be a non-starter that would give Israel a third of the West Bank, which he considers “a major portion of a future Palestinian state.” Additionally, he said, any designs Netanyahu has on controlling international crossing points, Palestinian airspace and water are an affront to Palestinian sovereignty and are therefore unacceptable.
– JERUSALEM AND THE LAW OF RETURN
Prime Minister Netanyahu unequivocally stated that Jerusalem must remain the capital of Israel, while the Palestinians have called for East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestine. Several proposals have been floated for Jerusalem to have international status, a bid which Israel has rejected outright. The age-old issue of Jerusalem is perhaps the thorniest one.
Additionally, Netanyahu has repeatedly declined to accept the Right of Return for Palestinians, a condition which the Palestinians continue to pursue relentlessly. “Only in direct negotiations can the real positions be clarified,” Netanyahu said in November.
It is clear that a resolution remains elusive to the respective claims of the Palestinians and the Israelis. But at least now we can say we understand what it’s all about, or at least the best we can.
And finally, I must thank Emily Gian who did much research on the settlements prior to taking leave, and has largely contributed to this piece.
Media and Advocacy Director
Zionist Federation of Australia