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.
International Development Questions Wednesday November 16th 11.30 am
Mrs Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con) T2. I welcome the work the Secretary of State is doing to ensure that UK aid to the Palestinian Authority does not directly fund payments to terrorist prisoners, but will she assure the House that she is doing everything possible to ensure that they do not indirectly fund such payments by freeing up resources that would otherwise be spent on day-to-day PA activities?
The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Rory Stewart) We have made it clear that our focus will be very much targeted on health, education and co-existence projects. We ensure that any support going in is carefully vetted, with an independent auditor; is directed to what will provide value for money; and, above all, will benefit the Palestinian people.
Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP) T5. Further to an earlier question, will the Minister commit to fast-track the review of aid for the families of Palestinian prisoners, in the knowledge that any reduction in that aid will bankrupt the Palestinian Authority, undermine politicians who are working for a peaceful solution and play into the hands of those, like Hamas, who want to pursue a course of violence?
Rory Stewart The Department remains entirely committed to the following principles. First, anything we do must encourage a two-state solution by ensuring that the Palestinian people are served with proper services. Secondly, we must make sure that the money goes in the right way to the right people. That is all about auditing, vetting and making sure that the real beneficiaries are there. Of course we will ensure that the review is done as efficiently as possible to serve the interests of the Palestinian people and the stability of the region.
Jerusalem Mayor threatens demolitions as revenge on Supreme Court
The decision of the Israeli supreme court to order the evacuation of 85 houses in an lllegal outpost by December 25 has started a battle for the soul of Israel.
All settlements are illegal in international law but the hilltop settlement of Anona considered illegal even by the Israelis. The Palestinian farmers who owned the land on which it was built went to court and for once the court found in their favour.
The response of the Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu was not to force the residents of Anona to move back to Israel, but to announce the building of a new illegal settlement at Shiloh in the West Bank so he can decant the evicted settlers from one illegal settlement into another.
Even this was not enough for the MPs in his right-wing coalition who voted on Wednesday November 16th by 58 votes to 50 to pass an emergency law that will retrospectively legalise Anona and all illegal outposts.
The reaction of the Mayor of Jerusalem showed scant respect for the rule of law: “Unless Amona is legalised, we’ll have to destroy hundreds or thousands of houses in Jerusalem too.”
In other words he is threatening to demolish thousands of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem in an act of revenge against the Israeli Supreme Court.
International law states clearly that an occupying power “shall not transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.
Yet in 49 years Israel has transferred 650,000 of its own population into illegal settlements in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
One MP from the left-wing Meretz party said the Knesset vote “resembles legislation in third-world countries where laws are written retroactively to whitewash their crimes”.
Another MP from the mainly Arab Joint List party said: “Whoever wants more proof of the cruelty, immorality and violence of the occupation got it in this bill. It spits in the face of the law and the international community.”
The UK government (and all Western governments) have consistently condemned the settlement project as illegal, but have refused to take any effective action even to stop settlement expansion. The EU, as Israel’s major trading partner, could easily exert enough pressure.
The UK now needs to make representations to the Israelis over the announcement of a new illegal settlement at Shiloh, to encourage President Obama to use the period between the election and the inauguration to lift the US veto and pass a UN Security Council calling for an end to settlement building and a deadline for peace talks , and to support the French peace initiative and back whatever motion they move in the Security Council.
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.
The gap between the election of the next US president on November 8 and her (or his) inauguration on January 20 is 73 days. That is the gap in which the outgoing president has a relatively free hand to do what he wants with only a minimum of consequences.
Some commentators have believed for some time – and the Israeli government now fears they are right – that Barack Obama will use this opportunity to lift the US veto and allow a resolution calling on Israel to stop building settlements to pass in the United Nations Security Council.
Until the middle of September it looked as if Obama had decided not to make any dramatic last-minute attempt to get the peace process restarted. He tried twice and failed twice. As an Israeli commentator said:
“The one who promised ’yes we can’, was revealed at the end of two terms as not only one who cannot, but one who doesn’t even try. He appears to have thrown in the towel.”
But in the last few weeks there have been a number of hints that Obama may try one last time to reset the bearings of the Middle East peace process with the US joining in a major international effort to put sufficient pressure on the Israeli government to change course.
The first hint came in the Lotte New York Palace hotel where Obama held a 30-minute talk with Netanyahu during the UN General Assembly. Obama raised “profound concerns about the corrosive effect” of settlements on the two-state solution.
Why would he raise this issue if he was just drawing attention to his own failure? If the most powerful man in the world highlights an issue, it could be because he intends to do something about it.
One week later Obama found himself in Jerusalem, leading the tributes to the former Israeli president Shimon Peres.
Peres fought in the Haganah, started the settlements, launched Israel’s nuclear programme and presided over the occupation, so Palestinians have no fond memories of him. But towards the end of his life he became – in his public speeches if not in his actions – a leading “dove”.
Obama was not only the only speaker to mention the “unfinished business of peace” but he made a point in his tribute of quoting Peres’ most “dovish” remarks: “The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people.” “We are against slaves and masters.” “True security comes from making peace with your neighbours.”
Most tellingly, he quoted Peres’ statement that Israel “will be best protected when Palestinians have a state of their own”.
Few people noticed that in his peroration he drew parallels between the early days of American democracy and today’s Israeli democracy. Both had flaws, he said. He didn’t specify what the flaws were, but there can be little doubt that he was talking about slavery and the occupation of Palestine.
Netanyahu’s response – as so often to Obama’s criticisms – was to announce the building of a new settlement. The Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the evacuation of an illegal outpost in the West Bank and instead of relocating the settlers to Israel, Netanyahu announced that he will decant them into 300 new homes to be built elsewhere in the West Bank.
According to Israeli ministers this is just “building a few dozen homes” for the residents of the outpost and the 300 new homes “do not constitute a new settlement”, but Obama’s spokesmen have not bought these excuses.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said: “I guess when we’re talking about how good friends treat one another, that’s a source of serious concern.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said it was “disheartening” that while the world mourned Shimon Peres, the Israelis were busy advancing plans “that would seriously undermine the prospects of the two-state solution he so passionately supported.”
The Israeli press have said it was “especially insulting” coming just a few weeks after President Obama signed a deal giving Israel $38 billion in military aid over 10 years.
Payback will start on Friday October 8th when the Security Council holds a special debate on Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank initiated by the Palestinians. The usual US defence of Israeli actions is expected to be muted, if not entirely absent.
There will be no vote on Friday, but there can be a vote on a French resolution on the settlements which is expected any time after Tuesday November 8th – the date of the US elections. The US veto – which has protected the Israelis at least 40 times in the past – may be absent this time.
The last time the veto was used was February 18th 2011 in a similar motion condemning Israeli settlements which was supported by 14 of the 15 countries on the Security Council (including the UK). Only the US using its veto against – even though the motion was in line with US policy at the time.
This time Obama is being urged to lift his veto from many different directions – including the New York Times who say the “best idea would be to have the United Nations Security Council, in an official resolution, lay down guidelines for a peace agreement, covering such issues as Israel’s security, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and borders for both states”.
Both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump have asked the President not to sign any “one-sided” motions against Israel, but in between election and inauguration they could press but not prevent him from doing so, and once the Security Council has passed the resolution they will not be able to revoke it.
Since the US veto was first used on September 10th 1972, Israel has been shielded by the US from any effective action to bring it into line with international law and with United Nations resolutions. If Obama ends Israel’s 44 years of immunity and joins with the international community in putting pressure on Israeli to comply with international law, it will be no inconsiderable legacy.