Israel has announced plans to build some new 3,000 homes in the West Bank. The controversial settlement policy may hamper peace talks - and has drawn harsh international condemnation.
The Israeli settlement Ma'ale Adumim lies in the bleak desert between Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. It's a town of some 36,000 inhabitants. To its west lies a narrow stretch of land more commonly known as E1. Jerusalem and Jordan are only a few kilometers away. Some 3,000 new homes for Israeli settlers may soon go up in zone E1, following an announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday (30.11.2012), shortly after the decision by the UN General Assembly to grant Palestinians non-member observer status last week.
Constructing settlements on occupied territory is widely seen as a breach of international law. But that didn't stop Israel from embarking upon a settlement program shortly after it captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967. According to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, so far some 500,000 Israelis have settled beyond the former green line which divided Israel and Jordan until the war in 1967: 300,000 of them live in the West Bank, a further 200,000 in East Jerusalem.
A patchwork country?
Israel's settlement program poses a major obstacle to the peace negotiations which are currently on hold. Any future independent state of Palestine would make up a patchwork woven around the many Israeli settlements dotted around the West Bank.
The settlements also impact on Palestinians' day-to-day life. Israeli compounds, military bases and check points severely limit Palestinians' freedom of movement. According to Sarit Michaeli, the spokeswoman for B'Tselem, some 60 percent of the West Bank remains inaccessible for Palestinians, making industry, agriculture or even the construction of houses impossible.
"The settlements were established in the place to thwart the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank," Michaeli told Deutsche Welle. "Settlements are scattered throughout the West Bnak in such a way that makes it very difficult to envisage a territorially contiguous Palestinian state."
The end of the two-state solution?
Zone E1 is particularly important from a strategic point of view. A settlement zone in E1 would divide the West Bank and cut it off from East Jerusalem, rendering a Palestinian State unviable - and adding yet another geographically separated territory to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
That is why, according to Michaeli, the US government exerted pressure to prevent prior plans to build settlements on the E1 zone. Any settlement would be the "final nail in the coffin" of a viable two-state solution Michaeli says. "It's an area that will seal off the open space that could link the West Bank with East Jerusalem."
The Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi agrees. The former education minister and spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation in the peace process is convinced that the plans to construct some 3000 houses is an "escalation" of the settlement activities that will "destroy the territorial contiguity of the West Bank" - and with it the two-state solution.
Ashrawi is convinced that the vote in the UN General Assembly to grant Palestinian observer status was only a "pretext to announce a plan that has already been in the making. We already knew, the international community already knew about E1 and Israel's efforts to expand, escalate and intensify settlement activities."
Ashrawi is convinced that the only way to secure peace is for Israel to put an end to its settlement program and reintegrate the settlers into Israel.
The Israeli government also halted all transfers of tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu emphasized that so far he only authorized the planning phase for Zone E1. But he has made clear that he would give the go-ahead should the Palestinian leadership continue with "unilateral steps" violating previous agreements with Israel.
UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon called the latest plans an "almost fatal blow" to any prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "these activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace." France, Great Britain and Germany criticized the Israeli announcements.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the plans undermined trust in Israel's "willingness to negotiate" in the peace process. Netanyahu and Merkel are meeting on Wednesday and will discuss the issue, according to her spokesman. Merkel, he added, was looking forward to "open talks among friends."
B'Tselem spokeswoman Michaeli is convinced that, should Israel go ahead with its plans, it wouldn't be too difficult to find settlers willing to move into zone E1. "Israel has invested vast amounts of resources to provide the settler population with various incentives to move into settlements." Housing on the other side of the green line is generally cheaper and with readily available funding opportunities, she told Deutsche Welle.