The Israeli government has long been planning to demolish the village of Umm Al Hiran and evict its inhabitants in order to build a Jewish village with the same name – Hiran – on exactly the same location.
The 500 Arab residents of the village have lived in the village for nearly 60 years and were ordered to move there by the Israeli military commander of the Negev who gave them a lease to build a village, farm the land and graze their sheep.
This village is in Israel, not the Palestinian Territories. Its residents are full citizens of Israel. Yet they are treated as though they had no rights, no importance.
Like all the other “unrecognised” villages in the Negev, they were provided with no mains electricity, no paved roads, no water, no sanitation. They had to do their best buying water from tankers and using solar panels for intermittent power.
Everyone who wants to end the Israel-Palestine conflict, from the President of the United States to your local peace campaign, agrees on one thing: the major injustice aggravating this conflict is Israel’s illegal settlement project.
For nearly 50 years now, since the start of the Israeli occupation in 1967, the Palestinians have watched helplessly as armed Israeli settlers, backed by the Israeli army, have built their homes on Palestinian land while Palestinians are denied permits to build on their own land.
Having been left with only 22% of historic Palestine after the creation of the Israeli state, the Palestinians have seen the land they control dwindle further as settlements grow. They could end up with just 8% of historic Palestine even though they are more than 50% of its population.
These settlements are regarded as illegal by every country except Israel. A motion calling on Israel to end settlement building was supported by 14 or the 15 countries on the United Nations Security Council in 2011, including the UK, France and Germany. Only the US voted against and that vetoed it.
President Obama now has a window of opportunity in the ten weeks between the US election and his successor’s inauguration on January 20 2017 to lift his veto and allow the international community to move towards a resolution of the conflict.
We are also about to start a year of unhappy anniversaries: March 2017 is the 10th anniversary of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, June 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and November 2017 is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the letter written by British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour promising “to view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
We think of the conflict as insoluble, but it will be easy to resolve if the international community is working together. Settlements equate to just over ½% of Israel’s trade with the outside world and Israel is a small country heavily dependent on its major trading partners, the EU and the US. Only a hint of concerted international action will be enough to persuade most Israeli voters that they are better off without the settlements.
That is why all the major organisations campaigning for justice for the Palestinians have made their major policy objective over the next year to stop settlement building and settlement trade.
MPs have a crucial role to play in this. They can put this issue on the agenda and make sure the international community takes this opportunity. Or they can look the other way and let the Israeli government get away with the gradual takeover of the West Bank, sowing the seeds for another century of conflict.
1. Settlements are illegal
The Israel government always disputes this, but international law states quite clearly that an occupying country “shall not … transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” and the International Court of Justice confirmed in 2004 that Israel was breaching its obligations under international law by establishing settlements in the West Bank. Even the US has always opposed settlements on the grounds they are illegal, though they prefer the word “illegitimate”.
2. Settlements are growing fast
Many people’s image of a settlement is just a cluster of houses on the top of a hill. In fact, the largest settlement now has a population of 60,000. Five are over 40,000. The last official number for the total number of settlers was 547,000 but that was in 2013. The settlers themselves say it is now nearly 800,000 among a Palestinian population of 2.9 million.
3. Settlements are eating up the West Bank
The Israeli government will tell you settlements cover only 3% of the West Bank. This is misleading. Settler councils control 42.7% of the land area. The Israel army is in administrative control of 62% of the West Bank, known as Area C. Settlements are constantly expanding. Palestinians are refused building permits with almost no exceptions. One of the parties in the Israeli coalition government want Area C annexed to Israel, leaving the Palestinians in control of isolated pockets of land amounting to just 8% of historic Palestine.
4. Settlements are strangling the Palestinian economy
The Israeli government wants you to believe settlers are more successful because they are better at business. No, it’s because they take 80% of the water and all of Palestine’s natural resources to which they have no legal right. Palestinians’ freedom of movement is restricted by 490 roadblocks in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. A report by the World Bank in 2013 calculated that the restrictions in Area C cost the Palestinian economy £3.4 billion a year or 35% of its national income. A Palestinian report in 2010 calculated that the Israeli-imposed restrictions on Palestine cost them 85% of nominal GDP.
5. Settlements are bad for Israel as well as Palestine
The settlements have cost an estimated £15 billion to build and cost £500 million a year to subsidise, which many Israelis think is a huge waste of money. But their government continues to offer subsidies to house prices and rents to persuade new immigrants to move there. Spending per citizen is double what it is in Israel, treble in isolated settlements. Religious settlers will never willingly move, but the majority are economic settlers, often locked in by negative equity on houses they cannot sell, and would willingly be bought out to live in Israel, where there is plenty of space. Exports from settlements do not benefit from lower tariffs under EU law and must be labelled as coming from settlements, not Israel.
6. Settlements are the main obstacle to the peace process
The Israeli prime minister says he is willing to enter ‘unconditional’ talks with the Palestinians. What he means is that he is willing to enter talks on condition that he can continue building settlements while talks are going on. The Palestinians are wise to this one. During the 20 years of Oslo talks, no progress was made towards peace but the number of settlers trebled. “It’s like negotiating shares of a pizza with a man who is eating the pizza as you negotiate so your share is always getting smaller,” they say. Obviously, settlement building has to stop before peace talks can resume.
Thank you to Owen Smith’s team for forwarding us this response from the Labour Leadership team to Grahame Morris MP, chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. We hope this will be helpful for those Labour Party members deciding how to vote.
Owen Smith writes:
“I am proud to be a member of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East and I strongly support a viable peace process based on internationally recognised (1967) borders.
“I continue to unequivocally support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the recognition of a viable Palestinian State alongside a safe and viable Israel. The terms of a peace deal are well known and I support them completely: two sovereign states living side by side in peace and security.
“The right to self-determination is an inalienable right for the peoples of both Palestine and Israel. I believe that the state of Palestine should be recognised,within the UN and by the UK, and I voted to recognise a Palestinian state in 2014 as an essential step towards to realising a two-state solution. I recognise that, ultimately, this can only be achieved by both sides sitting down together, with equal status, negotiating in good faith and making some difficult compromises.Peace is not something that can be imposed on either the Israelis or Palestinians by force or diktat.
“I am opposed to violations of international human rights law, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the construction of the separation wall on Palestinian land. I consider the settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories to be illegal, unjustifiable and detrimental to the prospects of achieving a two-state solution. I also agree that the blockade on Gaza should be lifted and that rocket attacks and terrorism against Israelis must stop.
“I am not convinced that a boycott of goods from Israel would help to achieve a negotiated peace settlement. In order to support the peace process we must build bridges between all those who support peace in the region. My time working in Northern Ireland as part of the peace process showed me that, beyond negotiations, peace only really comes when each side moves towards reconciliation.
As friends of the people of Israel and Palestine, our most important task is to help foster cooperation and coexistence between both sides and I believe the work of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East makes an important contribution to that understanding.”
Members will already be familiar with Jeremy Corbyn’s views on all these issues. To recap, during the 2015 leadership election Labour Friends of Palestine asked the candidates for their views on six issues: Are settlements illegal? UK recognise Palestine? Lift the blockade of Gaza? Stop settlement trade? Suspend tariff reductions? Stop arms sales? Jeremy Corbyn answered yes to all of them.
|2015||2016 so far*||annual rate|
|Buildings demolished||531||586||+ 383%|
|People evicted||688||800||+ 403%|
|*Jan 1 – Apr 18|