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Land is the issue. Land is confiscated, stolen, kept

Israel rejects the Mitchell report call for a freeze on growth of settlements

Dilip Hiro
Tuesday May 22, 2001 The Guardian

Behind the drama of shootings, stone throwing, fighter attacks, tank incursions, and razing of houses and orchards - that have attracted the world's attention in the eight-month low-intensity Israeli-Palestinian warfare - lies something undramatic: land.

That is, the unceasing, illegal seizure of Palestinian land by Israel in train for the past 34 years, which has created 200 Jewish settlements, including 13 in Arab East Jerusalem, with 400,000 residents.

It is to the credit of the George Mitchell report on the Israeli-Palestinian violence, published yesterday, that it has focused on Jewish settlements.

"Beyond the obvious confidence-building qualities of a settlement freeze, we note that many of the confrontations during this conflict have occurred at points where Palestinians, settlers and [Israeli] security forces protecting the settlers meet," says the Mitchell report. "Keeping both the peace and these friction points will be very difficult."

The report by the US- appointed committee, which includes two former American senators, the European Union's chief foreign affairs representative, Norway's foreign minister and a former Turkish president, is the first official, non-partisan assessment of the events in late September and October. So it should be treated seriously.

In Gaza, the Jewish colonies break up the tiny strip into three parts. Elsewhere they form a barrier between Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and between numerous Palestinian towns and villages on the West Bank. They and the interconnecting roads slice up the territorial continuity of what Palestinians hope will be an independent sovereign Palestine.

Such a state - should it emerge - would cover only 22% of the Palestine under British mandate during 1922-48. It would be less than half of what the Arab inhabitants of Palestine were offered by the United Nations partition plan of 1947.

Taking a long view, therefore, the battle between the inhabitants of Palestine since 691 (when the Dome of the Rock was built in Jerusalem), and the post-1922 Zionist colonisers from Europe has always been about land.

Though Israel has existed as a sovereign state since 1948 on 78% of British Palestine, its top leaders, be they rightwing or left, have yet to declare a whittling down of the original Zionist aim of all of Palestine as the Jewish homeland.

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, it was the Labour government which initiated the policy of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

The example of Kiryat Arba, a settlement near Hebron, is illustrative. After its 1967 victory, the Israeli military set up its camp on 40 hectares (100 acres) of Palestinian agricultural land, something it was entitled to do as the occupation army.

What it was not entitled to do was to increase the confiscated land 10-fold, to 400 hectares (1,000) acres, over the next two decades and create a complex of four Jewish settlements inhabited by some 6,000 civilians. In the process the Israeli army deprived Palestinians of two-thirds of their cultivated land in the area.

In its various resolutions, starting with 252 in 1967, the United Nations security council has repeatedly affirmed that the fourth Geneva convention relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war (August 1949) is applicable to the Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967. This convention expressly forbids the occupying power to change the demography of the territory under its occupation through such means as deportation or transfer of "parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies".

"The transfer, the installation of the occupying power into the occupied territories is considered as an illegal move and qualified as a 'grave breach'," said Rene Kosirnik, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation to Israel and the Palestinian territories, last week. "It's a grave breach, formally speaking, but grave breaches are equal in principle to war crimes."

But Israel has ignored this. For a long time Jewish Israeli leaders refused to accept the fact that Palestinians were as much a nation as Israeli Jews. It was the eruption of the intifada in 1987 and its longevity that broke that myth.

The signing of the Oslo accord in 1993 signified Israel's official recognition of Palestinians as a nation represented by the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

But that had no impact on the colonisation programme. Since the Oslo accord, the number of settlements has risen from 157 to 200, and nearly 40,000 new houses have been constructed. The number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza has shot up from 125,000 to 200,000, and in Arab East Jerusalem, from 150,000 to 200,000.

The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has refused to accept the Mitchell report's recommendation of an immediate freeze on settlement activity, arguing that the enlargement of settlements is the result of the "natural growth" of the population. It is hard to attribute a 70% rise in seven years in the West Bank colonies to "natural growth".

Sharon forgets that when his Likud predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, aired the same reasoning it was shot down by the Clinton administration which leaked the information gathered by US satellites that a quarter of the houses in West Bank settlements were empty.

The source of Sharon's obduracy lies elsewhere. "Many Israeli people today are not much excited by the idea of gaining a hectare and then another hectare [of Palestinian land] for Israel - but for me, that's still exciting," he told Ha'aretz (The Land), an Israeli daily, recently.

That is the view of a 73-year-old Zionist pioneer, who grew up on a Jewish kibbutz during the British mandate; committed to colonising all of the British Palestine.

It is out of line with a majority of Israeli Jews. The latest poll shows 62% favouring a freeze on Jewish settlements in exchange for a Palestinian ceasefire while 36% oppose it.

An editorial in the Yediot Aharonot (Latest News), a Hebrew daily accounting for two-thirds of total newspaper circulation in Israel, summed up the situation aptly. "According to updated polls, most Israelis - in contrast to their elderly military leader [Sharon] - support a settlement freeze," said a recent editorial. "A decisive majority also supports diplomatic activity and not just military pressure, and sees Arafat as a partner."

Given this, the Mitchell report is likely to spur those Israelis who disapprove of the ultra-hawkish stance of Sharon on the issue of Jewish settlements.

* Dilip Hiro is the author of Sharing the Promised Land (Hodder). His forthcoming book is Neighbours, Not Friends: Iraq and Iran After the Gulf Wars (Routledge)

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