Arabs squeezed as Jerusalem expands

Jewish settlements are encroaching on Palestinian territory at an alarming rate. Donald Macintyre reports from Israel

Israel

Dropping into a grocery store in Beit Safafa, Amir Akel, a lawyer, was measured in his reaction to the news that his community would soon find itself wedged beside the first new Jewish settlement to be built in Arab East Jerusalem for 15 years. Yes, the government's approval of the plan was "irrational". And, yes, he understood the politics involved. But as an Arab citizen of Israel with moderate views, Mr Akel, 36, was most concerned that the settlement would eat up the only land left for the expansion of Beit Safafa's fast-growing population.

"We need a solution for the people living here, especially young couples. A home with two rooms costs $1,000 a month, and it is very difficult to get a permit to build." Since the 1948 war that gave birth to Israel, northern Beit Safafa has bordered directly on to Jewish West Jerusalem. And relations between its Arab residents – half of whom, unusually for Jerusalem, are Israeli citizens – and their Jewish neighbours are good, said Mr Akel. "Many customers who come into this shop are Jews. A decision like this will affect that integration. That's why we need a solution that is for both sides."

The new Givat Hamatos settlement, for which the Israeli Interior Ministry's Jerusalem planning committee has approved the first 2,610 housing units, militates against just such a solution – in both the local and the wider political sense. Beit Safafa is already hemmed in to the west by the rapidly expanding Jewish settlement of Gilo. Givat Hamatos will leave it, in effect, enclosed: a Palestinian enclave in a overwhelmingly Israeli area.

Geographically, Beit Safafa – one of Jerusalem's more middle-class Arab districts with a large minority of its residents, like Mr Akel, Israeli-Arab migrants from northern Israel – is not in east but south Jerusalem. But politically the neighbourhood is clearly on the Palestinian side of the "green line" that divided the city between 1948 and Israel's conquest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967. This means the plan for Givat Hamatos, a large tract of open land with a temporary cluster of prefabs housing a small group of Ethiopian Jews, is not only illegal in international law but also a "provocative action" of just the sort the United Nations, European Union and United States warned against in September when they were trying to revive the peace process. And it is part of a wider policy that may help to explain the frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Barack Obama vented in his now famous G20 meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy.

Jerusalem's municipality insists that almost a third of the new units will be for Palestinians. But that still means more than 1,700 Jewish new homes in mainly occupied territory – significantly more than the 1,000-odd in Gilo, approval of which last month also caused international condemnation. But, in any case, Sami Ersheid, another Beit Safafa resident and a prominent lawyer representing the community, says this will be in the existing and already overcrowded Arab neighbourhood rather than as part of the new development. Instead of a limit of six units per quarter acre, there will be a new one of 12. Mr Ersheid, whose children go to the city's only Jewish-Arab mixed school, argues that local services, including water, are already close to breaking point. "I don't believe the municipality will invest in infrastructure [for the planned growth], as it hasn't for the past 40 years." The ministry rejected the residents' demand that the Israel Lands Authority, which now controls the land, be instructed to ensure a direct benefit to Beit Safafa. "This is part of a big plan to restrict Palestinian development in Jerusalem," says Mr Ersheid. "Givat Hamatos is the only reasonable space in which Beit Safafa can expand."

But Givat Hamatos is part of a much bigger picture. The world's current preoccupation with Iran has tended to overshadow steps that Mr Netanyahu's government has taken to punish Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for securing membership of Unesco. One was to withhold the customs revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority – which threatens to dry up the salaries of the Palestinian security forces Israel has been depending on to keep the peace in the West Bank. And the other was to accelerate settlement building in occupied territory by issuing tenders for 1,650 housing units in East Jerusalem alone.

Amid outrage from the Palestinians, the EU and Washington, Mr Netanyahu's office argued that the new units were in locations that would fall within Israel under any two-state solution. In Jerusalem, the nuclear core of the dispute over the future borders of a Palestinian state, this is improbable. Nothing official has been said about where the new units will be built, but many are expected to be in Har Homa, the last new settlement and, like Givat Hamatos, in south Jerusalem. In negotiations with Ehud Olmert – easily the closest the two sides have come to an agreement in a decade – the Palestinians insisted on Har Homa being in Palestine.

Thanks to painstaking research on plans in the pipeline by the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, it's now clear the city is experiencing a major surge in settlement building, unprecedented since at least the early 1970s. The surge is in line with Mr Netanyahu's insistence – contrary to that of the international community – that Jerusalem will be the undivided capital of Israel. And it suggests that Mr Netanyahu is now convinced that the Obama administration is unwilling to back its ritual protests about the city's settlements with sanctions.

His predecessor, Mr Olmert, eventually started building and planning Jerusalem settlements at a rapid rate, and was able to do so with relative impunity because he was negotiating in earnest with the Palestinians. Mr Netanyahu continued at a similar pace, including after the start of the moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank – from which he insisted East Jerusalem should be excluded.

Yet is also shows that after a spectacular showdown with US Vice President Joe Biden over plans to expand the Ramat Shlomo settlement in March 2010, Mr Netanyahu began an undeclared freeze of seven months in East Jerusalem, which ended only when the wider moratorium did, and which strongly suggests he can, if he chooses, halt settlement building in the city without endangering his coalition. It was subsequently that, as an expert student of US politics, Mr Netanyahu clearly judged that Mr Obama was in an election cycle and no longer had any leverage on the issue.

Most Western diplomats and experts believe the settlement programme in East Jerusalem – let alone the continuing consolidation of a settler presence in Palestinian areas in the Old City – could fatally undermine the long-term prospects of a negotiated peace. According to Daniel Seidemann, the Israeli lawyer who heads Terrestrial Jerusalem, if construction continues at its current pace, "the geographic and demographic map of Jerusalem will be so Balkanised that the very possibility of the two-state solution will be in jeopardy".

As elsewhere, so in the south of the city where borders are being effectively redrawn by Har Homa, Gilo and now Givat Hamatos. "These plans create a critical mass of continuous built-up settlement areas that almost invariably alter the potential border between Israel and Palestine," says Mr Seidemann, "and sever East Jerusalem from Bethlehem and its environs in the West Bank, which will likely be fatal to the two-state solution."

Syrian uprising: Arab League suspension deals blow to Damascus

The Arab League voted yesterday to suspend Syria in four days' time and said it could face sanctions if it does not end its bloody crackdown. The decision was a blow to a nation that prides itself on being a powerhouse of Arab nationalism. Qatar's Foreign Minister, Hamad bin Jassim, said 18 countries agreed to the suspension, which will take effect on Wednesday. Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voted against it, and Iraq abstained. He also cautioned that the league would introduce political and economic sanctions.

The decision comes as November shapes up to be the bloodiest month yet in Syria's uprising. More than 250 civilians have been killed in the past 11 days, and the UN estimates about 3,500 people have been killed since the uprising began eight months ago.

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