The Unsettling Truth About Those Israeli Settlements

James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute in Washington

CIA Chief George Tenet has brokered a fragile cease-fire that may bring temporary calm to the Middle East. But, as the recently released Mitchell Commission report made clear, "a cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be politically hard to sustain unless the government of Israel freezes all settlement activity ... including 'natural growth' of existing settlements."

It was, therefore, not surprising to find Israeli press reports last week claiming that Israel was close to reaching a "historic agreement" with the U.S. regarding such a settlement freeze.

What was disturbing, however, was the reported content of this "freeze." According to press accounts, this so-called agreement provides that: Only construction beyond current built-up areas will be frozen; no new settlements will be created; no additional land will be expropriated for the purpose of construction. Exceptions will be allowed for new roads and "natural growth" within existing settlements.

The reality is that this is no freeze at all. This "historic agreement" is nothing more than a repetition of past Israeli commitments that have been more often breached than observed.

To even be discussing a settlement freeze in 2001 is bizarre. In fact, it was about a decade ago that Secretary of State James Baker achieved his own historic compromise. In an effort to build confidence and coax Arabs and Israelis toward peace, Baker convinced Arab governments to suspend a key component of their economic boycott of Israel in exchange for Israel's agreement to a settlement freeze.

Since that time, Israel's settlement presence in the occupied territories has doubled. While the Israelis continue to claim that they have not built new settlements and have only allowed for natural growth of existing settlements, their claims are patently false. Today, what Israel calls "Greater Jerusalem" is virtually surrounded by a "Great Wall" of new settlements, which Israel claims are mere "extensions" of existing neighborhoods. These settlements spread from hill to hill, ringing the city. Eighteen Palestinian villages have been trapped within these Israeli compounds and strangled. And while the Israelis continue to claim that they will not confiscate "new land" on which to build these extensions, this too is an artful fabrication. Large areas of Palestinian land surrounding settlements have already been seized by Israel and are defined as "state" lands.

As damaging as this cancerous growth of settlements has been to the Palestinians, the dramatic expansion of the network of "Jewish only" security roads--in reality, superhighways connecting the settlements to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv--has been even worse. Large swatches of Palestinian land have been confiscated and declared off-limits to create these roads. Their impact has been to cut the occupied territories into pieces.

All of this has been in direct fulfillment of the original Likud plan for the occupied territories first defined in an October 1978 World Zionist Organization's "White Paper." The paper lays out a detailed plan to construct "settlements and roads around the settlements of the minorities [i.e. the Palestinians], but also in between them," so that the West Bank would never again form a contiguous land mass.

All of this was opposed by successive U.S. presidents, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton. Whether decrying the settlements as "illegal," "obstacles to peace," "unhelpful unilateral act," "provocative" or "impediments," opposition was clear, but no forceful or definitive action was taken to halt in their growth.

In violation of international law, 400,000 Israelis have been allowed to move into settlements that now carve the West Bank and Gaza into pieces. More than that, tens of thousands of these settlers are a hostile and dangerous vigilante presence, armed not only with weapons but an uncompromising theologically based ideology of entitlement and conquest.

Many Israelis understand the dangers posed by this situation. They know that despite the rhetoric of a new "freeze," the intent of the government remains the same.

As Yossi Sarid, a leader of the Meretz Party, noted: "When you build new settlements or expand existing settlements, it means that you want to persist with the occupation and deepen it."

So excuse me if I remain unconvinced by this latest "settlement freeze," full, as it is, of loopholes and exceptions.

This so-called "historic agreement" in the works is a dramatic step back from the Mitchell report's recommendation and, as such, an accommodation to Israel's intent to continue and deepen its presence in the occupied territories.

It is a deception that undercuts the very peacemaking efforts that U.S. policymakers are working hard to promote.

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