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August 28, 2008

Israel Pushes Ahead with Settlement Expansion


by Mel Frykberg

JERUSALEM - Israel has published tenders for the construction of 1,761 illegal housing units for Israeli settlers in occupied east Jerusalem alone, according to the Israeli rights group Peace Now.

The expansion plans come despite promises by the Israeli government at last year's peace summit at Annapolis, Maryland (in the US) to freeze all settlement growth.

"Once again this government has shown that its words and commitments are meaningless, and they have no intention of keeping to their word," says Peace Now.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stressed repeatedly that settlement construction or expansion in the West Bank is contrary to international law and Israel's commitments under the 'road map' peace process.

The road map was a series of peace-building measures proposed by US President George W. Bush in 2002 and subsequently developed by the diplomatic Quartet of the European Union, the United Nations, Russia and the United States.

Ban Ki-moon further urged Israel to freeze all settlement activity and to dismantle outposts erected since March of 2001.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, normally a diehard supporter of Israel, also expressed her concern about the settlement building during her last visit to Israel several months ago.

"It's important to have an atmosphere of confidence and trust," Rice said following talks she held with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. "The United States believes that the (settlement) actions and the announcements that are taking place are indeed having a negative effect on the atmosphere for negotiation."

The new construction should not be allowed to shape future Israeli-Palestinian borders, which remain under negotiation, Rice said. "The United States will not let these activities have any effect on final status negotiations, including final borders."

The Geneva Conventions specifically forbid the transfer of a civilian population into occupied territory.

But even as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was meeting with Abbas in Jerusalem last week in an endeavor to further the peace process, plans for further settlement construction were already under way.

At the beginning of the month, prior to Peace Now's statement, the Israel Lands Authority published tenders for the construction of 130 new housing units in Har Homa, East Jerusalem.

The Har Homa neighborhood and all east Jerusalem settlements were built on land Israel occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel subsequently incorporated the areas into Jerusalem's boundaries in a move not recognized internationally.

In addition to the public announcement of the tenders, there are currently 500 houses already under construction in Har Homa, and 240 in the settlement of Maaleh Adumim in East Jerusalem.

At the same time as the Har Homa tenders were being published, Israeli officials also called for bids from construction companies to build more than 300 apartments in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit near Bethlehem, and about 20 minutes drive from Jerusalem.

This came on top of Olmert's approval at the beginning of the year to build 750 new houses in the Givat Zeev settlement northwest of Jerusalem, and 100 in the Ariel settlement in the northern West Bank.

There are approximately 430,000 Israeli settlers residing illegally in the West Bank.

According to Israeli advocacy group B'Tselem, Israel has established 135 settlements in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) that have been recognized by the Interior Ministry. Additionally, dozens of outposts of varying size have been established.

Sixteen settlements were established in the Gaza Strip and subsequently dismantled in 2005 during the implementation of the 'disengagement plan'.

Land expropriation from Palestinian farmers for the building and enlargement of Israeli settlements has caused undue hardship and economic suffering for Palestinians, and some have initiated acts of civil disobedience in a bid to retain the pieces of agricultural land that have not been confiscated.

The villagers of Bil'in and Ni'ilin near Ramallah in the central West Bank, together with international activists and Israeli sympathizers, have staged weekly protests that have resulted in a number of deaths, arrests and injuries. The most infamous incident was the blindfolding, handcuffing and shooting of Ni'ilin resident Ashraf Abu Rahma.

The villagers of Ni'ilin have been protesting land expropriation which has seen the size of their village reduced from 5,700 hectares of land in 1948 to 3,300 hectares in 1967, to the present approximate of 1,000 hectares.

Ni'ilin olives farmer Bahjat Mesleh told IPS he had lost about 75 dunams (10 dunams is one hectare) of land to make way for the building of the separation barrier which divides Israel from the West Bank.

"This has cost me about 25,000 dollars, and I am more fortunate than other farmers as I've been able to continue supporting my family by working as a teacher. Not all farmers have been able to continue a livelihood," said Mesleh.

According to B'Tselem, "Israel has stolen thousands of dunams of land from the Palestinians. Israel forbids Palestinians to enter and use these lands, and uses the settlements to justify numerous violations of Palestinian rights, such as the right to housing, to earn a living, and freedom of movement.

"The settlers, on the other hand, benefit from all rights given to citizens of Israel who live inside the Green Line, and in some instances, even additional rights."

The principal tool used to take control of land is to declare it state land. This process began in 1979, and is based on a manipulative implementation of the Ottoman Lands Law of 1858, which applied in the area at the time of occupation.

Other methods employed by Israel to take control of land include seizure for military needs, declaration of land as "abandoned assets", and the expropriation of land for public needs.

(Inter Press Service)

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Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.

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