Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank
increased sharply in 2008, despite Israel's pledge at the beginning of the
year to freeze all construction, according
to a new report by an Israeli non-governmental organization [.pdf].
The report, released Wednesday by the group Peace Now, found that settlement
construction in 2008 increased by almost 60 percent, including new construction
both inside and outside of the security barrier and within illegal settlement
The Peace Now study was released on the same day that newly appointed U.S.
peace envoy George Mitchell a longtime critic of settlement construction
arrived in Israel. The increase in construction is expected to be a source
of friction in Mitchell's negotiations with Israeli leaders.
Critics warned that the increase in construction is likely to damage the already
fragile prospects for a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine.
"Every structure built in a settlement makes the two-state solution more
difficult to achieve and further jeopardizes Israel's future as a Jewish democratic
country," said Debra DeLee, president of Peace Now's sister organization
Americans for Peace Now.
The report found that at least 1,257 new structures were built in West Bank
settlements in 2008, up sharply from 800 in 2007. This figure did not include
the 261 new structures built in illegal outposts in the West Bank.
Nearly 40 percent of the new structures were built east of the security barrier,
many of them extending deep into the West Bank.
And despite the Israeli government's pledge to crack down on the illegal outposts,
the study found that "not a single real outpost was evacuated."
Additionally, the report found evidence that land confiscations were continuing
to take place, contradicting the government's stated policy.
Following the Annapolis peace conference in late 2007, Israeli Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert pledged to freeze settlement construction and remove some existing
In November 2008, he announced that the government would cut off funding for
illegal outposts thereby admitting that it had continued to fund them up
to that point.
The Peace Now report found that the Israeli government had encouraged the
increase in settlement construction both through active aid and through non-enforcement
of its stated policies.
Also on Wednesday, U.S. envoy Mitchell arrived in Jerusalem and met with leaders
including Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
He is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad in Ramallah, and Likud Party chief Binyamin
Netanyahu on Friday.
Although preliminary reports indicated that the aftermath of the war in Gaza
was the primary topic under discussion at Wednesday's meetings, the settlements
are expected to be a continued sticking point going forward.
Mitchell served an earlier stint as Middle East peace envoy in 2001, after
which his committee released a report that was harshly critical of Israeli
The 2001 Mitchell report called on Israel to "freeze all settlement activity,
including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements." This call was
taken up in the George W. Bush administration's "road map" for the
peace process, which formed the basis of the 2007 Annapolis conference.
Mitchell's insistence on a settlement freeze as a precondition for the peace
process led many right-leaning pro-Israel groups in the U.S. to oppose his
recent selection as peace envoy. Abraham Foxman, the influential head of the
Anti-Defamation League, stated that he was "concerned" about Mitchell's
"meticulously evenhanded" approach to the region.
Nevertheless, in the eight years since Mitchell's initial report, his calls
for a halt to the settlement project have become a mainstream consensus view.
Olmert and his predecessor Ariel Sharon who had been an original architect
of the settlement project both came to believe that it was likely to doom
Israel if left unchecked.
Given the basic demographic trends, an Israeli state encompassing the West
Bank and Gaza would soon have an Arab majority. This would force Israel to
choose between becoming a secular and binational state with full political
rights for all citizens, or an undemocratic state that denied full political
rights to Arab residents.
It was partially this logic led Sharon to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and
remove Israeli settlements there in 2005.
However, the challenge in the West Bank is much greater. There are now estimated
to be over 285,000 settlers in the West Bank, many of them militantly opposed
to a two-state solution. The Israeli government has generally paid lip service
to the goal of curbing the West Bank settlers, but has been reluctant to crack
down on them.
If Netanyahu becomes the next Israeli prime minister, as currently seems likely,
he and Mitchell could be set to clash on the settlements issue.
Netanyahu has recently tacked to the center on the issue, telling Quartet
envoy Tony Blair on Sunday that a Likud-led government would build no new settlements.
However, Netanyahu said that he would continue to permit "natural growth"
of existing settlements a qualification that strips his promise of much of
Israel has not officially created any new settlements in over a decade, instead
ascribing all settlement construction to "natural growth." It was
this consideration that led both Mitchell's 2001 report and Bush's road map
to explicitly forbid construction under the auspices of "natural growth."
Gershom Gorenberg, author of The
Accidental Empire, a 2007 history of the settlements, urged Mitchell
to stand firm against Netanyahu in an open
letter published Wednesday in The American Prospect.
Netanyahu's position is a "con," Gorenberg wrote. "You need
to insist on [a full settlement freeze] publicly in the months ahead."
At the moment, however, none of the leading candidates for prime minister
appears to have much appetite to confront the settlers. How much pressure Mitchell
and the Obama administration are willing to exert on the Israeli government
to do so will be one of the first tests of the U.S.-Israel relationship in
the months ahead.
(Inter Press Service)