Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Whither Ma’ale Adumim?

MA’ALE ADUMIM, Palestinian Territories – After the bus from Jerusalem exits the tunnel which runs underneath the university at Mount Scopus, any connection to the city is shredded and disposed of, as the landscape shifts from urban jungle to arid hilltops speckled with deep green pine trees and puddles of concrete. Yet while the physical environment dramatically alters, it feels as though no political boundary has been crossed, in spite of the fact that the bus has, technically speaking, driven straight across the Green Line.

The other thing to note when visiting Ma’ale Adumim on a weekday morning is its stillness, its ghostly aura. Settlements on the West Bank are often spoken of in the abstract, as if the towns have no residents or perhaps more accurately as if ‘the settlers’ are one homogenous block with no distinct characteristics or fault lines.

In Ma’ale Adumim at least, while the residents have taken an active decision to reside in this most controversial of settings, a good proportion of the city’s inhabitants are merely commuters who work in Jerusalem by day and travel back to their homes and families on the E1 highway as the sun sets. They live, as it were, a normal existence in a most extraordinary setting.

Ma’ale Adumim has the dishonour of competing with Ariel – “the heart of Israel”, according to Benjamin Netanyahu – to be the most controversial Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. Established by a few families in 1975, it has grown with tremendous encouragement from the central government into a city of nearly 40,000 people, complete with shopping mall, library, schools, sports facilities, parks, and playgrounds. The quality of life and subsided cost of housing and living attracts olim from the United States and the former Soviet Union in particular.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Israel/Palestine 101

PEACE in the Mideast, and the pursuit of it, has been renewed so many times that each revival has become less sincere, effective and credible. It’s had more facelifts than Joan Rivers, more comebacks than Cher and been through almost as any periods of rehabilitation as the Sheen family. And to the fountain of youth it returns once more.

This Thursday, President Obama is due to speak on the future of talks between Arabs and Israelis as to coincide with a visit from Benjamin Netanhayu. Bibi, incidentally, is due to address a joint session of Congress on May 24, an opportunity which will in all likelihood be used to make clear again an unmoved Israeli stance.

A resolution at this point may seem a little fainter on the horizon that at any time since the al-Aqsa Intifada, though we are at least a little clearer on what a peace might eventually look like. The Palestine Papers revealed many things we already knew – the Palestinian Authority is spineless and incompetent; Israeli high command by contrast is stubborn and obstinate – but they also made evident that the issues which separated the two sides in 1948, 1967, 1993 and 2000 remain so in 2011.

Borders: The call of Palestinian high command since the Oslo Accords in 1993 has been for the creation of an independent state along the Green Line: the line of ceasefire which existed before the commencement of the Six Day War. The international community seeks this too, and in a manner of speaking so do most Israelis. Their position, however, has been complicated by the construction of settlements and the Security Barrier on the West Bank, in some places penetrating miles deep inside the West Bank.

As such, the 1967 borders are more an outline to be traced around. Current negotiations centre about the Clinton Parameters, which recommended in 2000 that Palestinians receive 94-96pc of the West Bank and 1-3pc of Israeli land. The Olmert Plan, which added some meat to these considerations, gave Palestine 94pc of Cisjordan, and swapped the land annexed by Israel around settlements for territory east of the Gaza Strip and south of the West Bank in the Judean Desert.

Settlements: Avi Shlaim stated in a 2010 lecture at the LSE that the obstacles to peace can be surmised in three words: settlements, settlements, settlements. In 2009, some 304,569 Israelis lived in West Bank settlements, with growth rates topping out at 4.5pc in places like Modi’in Ilit. Estimates suggest too that around 192,000 reside in East Jerusalem.

These settlements are illegal under international law; nonetheless, any concord would provide for the incorporation of most of these towns into the Jewish state. The Clinton Parameters specify that parts of the West Bank annexed by Israel would include 80pc of settlements in blocs. Indeed, Olmert’s plan provided for the incorporation of all major localities in the Seam Zone, the patch of land between the Green Line and the Security Barrier: Gush Etzion, a collection of villages south-west of Bethlehem; Ma’ale Adumin east of Jerusalem, and Ariel in the north near Salfit.

Jerusalem: The conflict in microcosm, this divided city and how best to partition it was the issue that made Yasser Arafat jack it all in at Camp David in 2000. The Palestinian position is that East al-Quds would become the capital of the new state, including the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. The current Israeli Mayor Nir Barkat however has made clear that he would not accept a cantonised Yerushalayim, claiming that no city split into two has ever lasted the course.

Differing interpretations of the Olmert plan provided for either a unitary city under Israeli governance, or a rump East Jerusalem sliced and diced by the loss of land in the north around French Hill and the south around the settlements of Har Homa and Gilo. Of these, the latter is the more likely outcome. A solution for the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has never been achieved. Camp David 2000 provided for ‘custodianship’; Olmert left the matter to further negotiations; Saeb Erekat in 2009 merely implied that ‘creative ways’ could be found to deal with it.

Right of Return: What the ‘right of return’ constitutes for those Palestinian refugees who fled during what the Arabs call al-Naqba (the catastrophe) has never been properly defined. As the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi has stated, the right to return to what exactly? Sixty-three years on, the Naqba still smarts and remains a cornerstone of Palestinian unity, but several generations removed from 1948 any notion of going back to the villages of the Mandate is purely notional. Any treatise would demand Israel pay restitution, assist in the finding of homes for those in absentia in Palestine, and admit a limited number of refugees to Israel as recompense.

THERE remain other matters to iron out of course: how will Palestine be governed? and by whom? Will they be permitted to maintain an army? When will the IDF leave? and will the Israelis use force to remove settlers from disengaged areas? Such delicate matters cannot be dealt with through sweeping ‘take it or leave it’ programmes like the Clinton Parameters, but will have to be dissected over a number of months by negotiators and international mediators.

Such details notwithstanding, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the global community are well aware of how a most basic peace might be fashioned out. It is this that makes the previous forty or so years of terror, combat and impasse all the more perplexing and frustrating. Bitter religious and nationalistic sectarianism has barricaded the path to peace, to the detriment of those living in the Land of Israel.

The events of Naqba Day have shown the Palestinian hand, that of deep-seated rage, a yearning for autonomy and, in the case of Hamas, contempt for Israel’s right to exist. Netanyahu in turn has rarely been dovish, and his coalition is certainly prepared to wait indefinitely for a palatable peace. This week will reveal whether Obama can branch the chasm, and gift to the world the peace we all yearn for.