Palestinians see settlements thwarting state (REUTERS) By Samia Nakhoul JERSALEM, ISRAEL 05/18/12 9:44am EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Surrounded by aides, including one whose only task seems
to be light his cigarettes, Mahmoud Abbas sits in a vast presidential
office and speaks of his ambition to create a Palestinian state.
But outside his sprawling compound on the hills of the West Bank town
of Ramallah reality on the ground is different - his dream is being
built over by ever-expanding Jewish settlements.
From Ramallah to the sacred city of Jerusalem 20 km (12 miles) away,
and all across the West Bank, the sprawling new communities, perched
on hilltops that dominate the landscape, are testament to a shifting
political geography and a reminder of the 64-year-old conflict and
its winners and losers.
As Abbas resists pressure to resume talks on statehood until Israel
halts construction, some Palestinians say he is too late to secure a
viable national territory - partly because Yasser Arafat, his
predecessor, failed to grasp the challenge of the settlements when he
agreed an interim peace nearly 20 years ago.
"There will be no Palestinian state," said Khalil Tafakji, a
geographer who advised Arafat but says the late PLO leader, in exile
for much of his life, did not appreciate how far Israelis had gone by
the early 1990s in permanently colonizing the West Bank and East
Jerusalem, captured in war from Jordan in 1967.
"Look at the facts on the ground," Tafakji told Reuters last week as
he reviewed maps of Israeli towns and infrastructure, which the
United Nations deems illegal on occupied land: "There is no
geographic contiguity between Palestinian villages and cities," he
said. "They have expanded settlements, built bridges and tunnels. We
now have two states inside one state."
Aside from its tightening grip on Arab East Jerusalem, Israel now
directly controls about 58 per cent of the West Bank, while the rest
is administered by Abbas´s Palestinian Authority.
The Oslo peace accords of 1993 left it to future negotiators to agree
the "final status" of the division of territory between Israel and a
Palestinian state. Failure to reach agreement has, in effect, left
Israel drawing up its own map of the future.
Nabil Shaath, a senior figure in the Palestine Liberation
Organization and a veteran of peace negotiations going back decades,
concurs with Tafakji´s gloomy view of "facts on the ground" making it
ever harder to establish a state:
"Every day we lose territory on the ground, we lose sovereignty, we
lose people," he said in Ramallah, where the Authority is based, in
the hope of one day being able to set up a Palestinian capital in
East Jerusalem. "They are grabbing as much land as possible to
control the situation on the ground.
"Israel should not change the status quo on the ground during the
negotiations," Shaath argued. "They should cease settlement building
and any violation of the Oslo accord.
"But they want to draw the map of their land grab."
Tafakji reckons it might have been possible a decade ago to share
Jerusalem with Israel but says that is no longer the case due to a
policy of settling Jews in - and around - the Arab East, including
the Old City revered by three religions, as well as legal moves to
bar Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from returning to the city if
they spend time living abroad.
"Today you cannot divide Jerusalem," he said. "It is impossible," he
added noting how Israeli settlers were moving in to houses inside
mainly Arab-populated city neighborhoods.
Palestinians are adamant that the east of the city they call al-Quds
will be capital of a state they demand on less than a quarter of what
was British-ruled Palestine before the establishment of Israel in
Their national dream is endorsed by fellow Arabs and bolstered by the
spiritual aspirations of a billion Muslims to regain control around
the third holiest site in Islam.
But for Israelis the entire city, Yerushalayim in Hebrew, is
the "eternal and indivisible" capital of the Jewish state, the home
the Jews dreamed of throughout 2,000 years of bitter exile.
"THE SHARON MAP"
The ruling Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come
round to accepting the Oslo concept of a "two-state solution". But he
rejects dividing Jerusalem and, while willing to redraw borders and
give up some settlements, wants Israel to keep a security cordon
around the West Bank in perpetuity.
For Tafakji, the settlement enterprise that has now matured long
predates the Oslo process and the hopes it raised for a peaceful
resolution of a century-long conflict between Arabs and Jews over how
to share the land.
That story begins in 1978 when Matitiyahu Drobless, head of the World
Zionist Organization Settlement Division, prepared a first
comprehensive plan for the establishment of colonies throughout the
West Bank with a settler population intended to reach 1 million. For
many Zionists, disappointed by partition of Palestine in 1948,
victory in the Six Day War of 1967 was the chance to build a greater
Israel across the whole territory.
The Drobless Plan for the hill country stretching 40 or so miles
north and south of Jerusalem, known as the West Bank internationally
or in Israel by the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria, was to
scatter Jewish communities along the heights around Palestinian towns
Now numbering some 340,000, and growing at 4.3 percent last year,
that Israeli settler population is a mix of people who see the West
Bank offering cheaper housing and an easy commute to Tel Aviv or
Jerusalem and those who see themselves as pioneers exercising an
ancestral right to the lands.
While many of the other six million Israelis are ambivalent about the
settlements, which few ever visit, the drive to expand them acquired
real momentum in the early 1980s when then defense minister Ariel
Sharon drew up a grand plan known as Military Order No. 50. Later,
like Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, Sharon ordered a network of
roads through and around Jerusalem that connected settlements and
separated Arab villages and districts.
Already in the "Sharon map" of the 1980s, said the cartographer
Tafakji, the outlines of what have now become more than 200 isolated,
Palestinian-administered areas were defined by the routes of the
Israelis-only highway network: "If you transpose all the roads onto
one map you can see the cantons clearly, in the north, in the south,
inside Jerusalem," he said.
Sharon, by then housing minister, developed further a plan to ensure
control of Jerusalem before the Oslo process got under way by
surrounding East Jerusalem with four major settlement blocs - looming
from the West Bank hills, some said, like modern Crusader castles.
NO LONGER POSSIBLE?
Addressing parliament in 1991, Sharon explained: "We have set for
ourselves a goal of guaranteeing that in Jerusalem, the capital of
the Jews and the eternal capital of Israel, there will be a Jewish
"We are proceeding today with a far-reaching vision that in the
greater Jerusalem area there will be a million Jews."
Today, some two thirds of the 750,000 population of the Jerusalem
municipality are Jewish, about 200,000 of those in East Jerusalem,
where about 250,000 Palestinians also live.
For Tafakji, Sharon has succeeded: "As a technician, not a
politician, I say that a Palestinian state is no longer possible when
you look at the facts on the ground."
He said Arafat, whom he advised during the Oslo talks and who died in
2004, never fully grasped the scope and ambition of the settlement
enterprise: "When he entered into negotiations I think Arafat had no
idea about facts or settlements."
Arafat agreed to leave resolving the fate of settlements for
the "final status" negotiations. "They did not freeze settlement
building," Tafakji recalls of the Oslo negotiators. Since then,
Israel has built 38,000 new housing units on occupied land.
"I told Arafat ... that a Palestinian state was no longer possible,"
Tafakji said, forecasting that Netanyahu´s new unity coalition will
go on consolidating Israeli control in Jerusalem and beyond to
make "the West Bank look like Swiss cheese".
Like many Palestinians, who have also seen the other part of their
territory, the Gaza Strip on the coast, taken over by Hamas Islamists
who reject Abbas´s control, Tafakji fears the statehood project is
doomed: "You see, there is no peace here, there is no hope," he said,
musing only on a miracle of Jerusalem proportions: "Maybe Jesus will
come to the Third Temple."
TIME IS RUNNING OUT
While the many Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem await the second
coming of Jesus in the city, many Jews pray for the rebuilding of
their Biblical Temple, the second and last of which was razed by the
Not everyone agrees with Tafakji´s assessment and some diplomats in
the city say a separate Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem can
still be envisaged. Maps do exist, as to elaborate plans for public
transport routes cutting across "foreign" land by means of bridges
and tunnels to link districts together.
However, few disagree that time is rapidly running out, with
settlement building to the south of the city, towards Bethlehem, set
to further isolate Arab neighborhoods.
Abbas told Reuters he would not return to the negotiations without
Israel freezing settlement activities. He said Netanyahu must realize
they were destroying hopes of peace and must cease.
The Israeli prime minister says his government is building less than
previous administrations and argues that recent construction is
focused on expanding neighborhoods in existing settlements, rather
than creating new blocs.
His office also stresses that the actual settlements take up just 3
percent of the total West Bank territory. However, Israeli map
experts say these Jewish communities take up closer to 8 or 10
percent, once industrial and agricultural areas which are under
direct Jewish control are taken into account.
Netanyahu says the issue should be resolved in face-to-face talks,
giving no indication he is ready to accept Palestinian conditions
that settlement building halt before they resume.
Western diplomats in the city tend to agree with Abbas that the
settlements are a major hurdle. Arguing that it was hard not to
conclude that Israel was deliberately seeking to break up the West
Bank into separate Palestinian "cantons", one senior diplomat
said: "Settlements are unbelievably corrosive. It destroys any faith
on the Palestinian side that they are serious and totally corrodes
(Additional reporting by Michael Stott and Crispian Balmer; Editing
by Alastair Macdonald) (© Thomson Reuters 2012. 05/18/12)
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