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Creeping annexation of the West Bank

One step forward, five steps back. After much humming and hawing Ehud Barak has decided to dismantle 10 of the 40 settlements built by the right in the months before the Labour Party and its allies came to power. But by maintaining 30 of them - on top of the 145 others - the Israeli prime minister is disregarding the resolutions of the UN Security Council, making it harder to have an independent Palestinian state and reinforcing the system of discrimination in the West Bank.

The timing could have not been more symbolic. The day after the formal launch of final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that will determine the future of the Occupied Territories, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of the settlements, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak paid a visit to Maale Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank, on the outskirts of Jerusalem (1). In a defiant message to the Palestinians he pledged that the settlement would remain under Israeli sovereignty in any final status agreement: "Every house you have built here is part of the state of Israel. Forever. Period. The new government will continue to strengthen the state of Israel, its hold over the Land of Israel, and we will continue to develop and strengthen Ma'aleh Adumim."

The Ma'aleh Adumim settlement was established in the winter of 1975 during the first government headed by Yitzhak Rabin. In July 1977, a month after Menahem Begin formed the first Likud government, his government legalised Ma'aleh Adumim and two other settlements "and charged the settlement institutions with granting them commensurate treatment".

And "commensurate treatment" Ma'aleh Adumim was indeed granted. Classified as a high-priority development area, the settlement received myriad governmental benefits such as housing subsidies, income tax reductions and low-interest loans. Throughout the years, every Israeli governments undertook in Ma'aleh Adumim massive programmes of housing construction, infrastructure development and road-building. Employment opportunities were created and transportation networks established.

With the help of this massive flow of resources the number of settlers in Ma'aleh Adumim rose rapidly. In October 1992 it became the first settlement to be proclaimed a town. It now has 25,000 residents. Its prosperity is evident at every corner. The settlement has a large industrial zone, numerous educational and cultural institutions, green areas. Recently a big shopping mall was opened.

But Ma'aleh Adumim is not just the story of a successful urban development as depicted in the municipality's glossy brochures and snazzy website. Ma'aleh Adumim was established on lands taken from Palestinians, from the villages of Abu Dis, Al Izriyyeh, Al Issawiyyeh, Al Tur and Anata. Other lands had been inhabited for dozen of years by the Jahalin and Sawahareh Bedouin tribes.

But to fully appreciate the cumulative, staggering consequences that Ma'aleh Adumim and the other settlements have had on the Palestinians, one cannot simply count those directly affected, those whose land was confiscated or house demolished for the construction of this or that settlement or by-pass road. Each dispossession cannot be properly appraised unless it is considered in the broader context of the national dispossession these policies brought about. As the Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh points out: "By depriving the Palestinian of his land Israel is depriving him, as a member of the Palestinian nation, of his future. The Palestinian nation is being deprived of its basic right which it shares with all other nations, the right to self-determination. Its people are deprived of the opportunity to express themselves as a community with their own traditions and character and to live out their hopes" (3).

Expansion plan with political designs

In 1995, with the cooperation of the Rabin government, the Ma'aleh Adumim municipality drafted an expansion plan for the city. The final approval was granted by Moshe Arens, defence minister in the last days of the Likud-led government, ten days after Binyamin Netanyahu lost the elections. The plan is a comprehensive scheme that designates areas for a road network, residential areas, tourism, sport and recreation areas, a cemetery, a regional commercial area, a site for refuse disposal and recycling, an area for mining and quarrying, etc (4). Thus a settlement of less than 30,000 residents will extend over 53 square kilometres - bigger than Tel Aviv and half the size of Paris.

The reason for the generous allocation of land and massive construction is related to Israel's overriding geopolitical objectives in the Occupied Territories. Due to its strategic location - 7 kilometres east of Jerusalem on the Jerusalem-Jericho road - the Ma'aleh Adumim expansion plan has repercussions beyond the territorial area it encompasses. It would, if implemented, preempt the outcome of some of the major issues to be determined in the final status negotiations: the borders of Israel, the viability of the Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem.

One of the major objectives of the various Israeli governments in the establishment of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories since the beginning of the occupation was territorial expansion, without official annexation. As Golda Meir said 25 years ago, "The frontier is where Jews live, not where there is a line on the map" (5). More recently Arens said that settlements that have been established are going to play a very significant role in determining Israel's permanent borders. To illustrate this claim, he cited the existence of Ma'aleh Adumim and its impact on the borders around Jerusalem (6). Barak's candid statement during a recent visit shows that, for him, the annexation of Ma'aleh Adumim is already a fait accompli: "I say you are part of Jerusalem", he told its residents.

Jerusalem is at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Ma'aleh Adumim and its planned expansion play a major role in Israel's intention of consolidating its illegal annexation of Arab East Jerusalem. By connecting the largest Jewish settlement to Jerusalem, the expansion plan will incorporate extensive areas from the West Bank surrounding Jerusalem into Israel and further isolate the Palestinians of East Jerusalem from those in the West Bank. The plan would also hinder a territorial link between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank, in particular between Ramallah and Bethlehem: the only access would be through Israeli-held territory. It would also impede the viability of the Palestinian state, for which territorial contiguity is a necessity.

Apartheid in the Holy Land

The case of Ma'aleh Adumim also illustrates the extent to which Jewish settlements, whilst physically situated in occupied territories and in theory subject to the same military rule imposed on Palestinians, have in practice become part and parcel of Israel. The massive network of roads and highways in the West Bank that connect the major settlements to Israel represents the most overt aspect of Israel's relentless efforts to incorporate the settlements and settlers into Israel. It makes it possible for settlers to commute to Israel each day. Indeed, most residents of Ma'aleh Adumim work in Jerusalem.

Another aspect of the integration of the settlements into Israel - less conspicuous but no less important - is the application of virtually the whole Israeli legal system to the settlements. Throughout the years Israel's civil and military authorities have enacted a myriad of laws, regulations, and orders relating to settlers in the Occupied Territories to ensure that in almost every respect the lives of settlers are like those of Israelis living in Israel itself. The Ma'aleh Adumim municipality puts it succinctly: "Ma'aleh Adumim is subject to Israeli law as a result of [military] orders, and the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] is sovereign in the area. In everyday life, this presence is not felt, and the town's residents are Israeli citizens with the same rights and obligations."

By granting the same rights given to Israeli citizens living In Israel to the residents of Ma'aleh Adumim and the other settlements, Israel has established a system of segregation and discrimination, in which two populations living in the same area are subject to different systems of law. While Palestinians are subject to military law and usually tried in military courts, Israelis who commit the same offence in the same place are subject to Israeli law and tried in civil courts inside Israel. Jewish settlers enjoy all the rights of Jews in Israel, including complete freedom of movement, speech and organisation, participation in local and national (Israeli) elections, social security and health benefits, etc. For Palestinians, on the other hand, even those living a few hundred metres from Jewish settlements, freedom of movement is limited. They cannot, obviously, vote to curtail the powers of the IDF and they do not enjoy Israel's social security or health benefits. In Africaans they call it apartheid.

Barak's commitment to continue this institutionalised discrimination is spelled out in the government's basic guidelines: "The government will work to provide regular government and municipal services [to the Jewish residents in Judea, Samaria and Gaza] equal to those offered to residents of all other communities in Israel" (8). The quiet de facto annexation carried out through all sorts of administrative and legal means, which gives the settlers all the rights and benefits of citizens living in Israel, has enabled the government to entrench its control over the West Bank without formal annexation, which would have raised strong opposition by the international community.

After 30 years of Israel's relentless colonisation project, we have become inured to the inherent iniquity of the settlements and the political calamity they pose for peace in the Middle East. When new hilltop outposts are established or additional houses built in the sprawling urban settlements of the West Bank, the reactions of the major political players are practically routine. Yasser Arafat vents his anger with President Hosni Mubarak or the Europeans - in a tepid manner, so as not to rock the boat of the peace process - and the Israeli government explains that these are not new settlements but rather a response to the "natural growth" of existing ones, while the United States cautiously calls on the parties to the conflict to refrain from taking unilateral acts that could damage the peace process.

The Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, was right: "Habit is the most shameful disease because it makes us accept any misfortune, any pain, any death. Through habit we learn to bear chains, to submit to injustices, to suffer, we resign ourselves to sorrow, to solitude, to everything. Habit is the most merciless poison because it enters us slowly, silently, grows little by little, nourished on our unawareness, and when we discover we have it in us, our every fibre has adjusted to it, our every action is conditioned by it, there is no medicine in existence then that can cure us" (9).

In September Peace Now issued a new report indicating that since the installation of the Barak government three months ago, the housing ministry has issued tenders for the building of some 2,600 new houses in the West Bank. The housing minister, Yitzhak Levy, explained that most of these homes are slated for settlements in the Jerusalem area, such as Ma'aleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev and Beitar Illit, adding that these sites "certainly have to undergo a beefing-up process if the government intends to safeguard Jerusalem in the [diplomatic] negotiations" (10).

If the international community does not immediately take concrete action to counter this creeping annexation, the words uttered more than 20 years ago by Moshe Dayan, the architect of Israel's policy in the Occupied Territories, will become a dismal reality: "politically Palestine is finished" (11).

* Executive director of B'Tselem - the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. This article is based on a new B'Tselem report, On the way to annexation; Human rights Violations Resulting from the Establishment and Expansion of the Ma'aleh Adumim Settlement by Yuval Ginbar.

(1) This article is based on a recent report by B'Tselem, On the way to annexation : Human Rights Violations Resulting from the Establishment and Expansion of the Ma'ale Adumim Settlement, by Yuval Ginbar, available on line at:

(2) International Herald Tribune, Tel Aviv, 15 September 1999.

(3) Raja Shehadeh, Occupier's Law : Israel and the West Bank, Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington, 1988 (revised), p. 49.

(4) Civil Administration for Judea and Samaria, Maaleh Adumim, Local Planning Division, Town Planning Scheme 420/4, 1995, section 11.7.3.

(5) Statement of 27 September 1972 quoted by Geoffrey Aronson, Palestinians and the Intifada. Creating facts on the West Bank, Kegan Paul International, London & New York, 1990, p. 14.

(6) Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem, 5 March 1999.

(7) Municipal Council of Maale Adumim, Maale Adumim, profile of a town (in Hebrew), 1998, p. 12.

(8) Israel Government Press Office, Basic Guidelines of the 28th Government of the State of Israel, section 4, 3.

(9) Oriana Fallaci, A Man, Hamlyn, 1981, pp. 129-130.

(10) Haaretz, Tel Aviv, 27 September 1999.

(11) Quoted by Michael Curtis (ed), The Palestinians, Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ, 1975, p. 185.

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