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The (il)logic of Israel’s land grabs as a form of punishment

It has been one of the most tragic summers for the Middle East in many years

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

It has been one of the most tragic summers for the Middle East in many years. From Iraq to Syria, Libya and of course the war between the Hamas and Israel, violence and extremism reigned supreme. The agreement for a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas could provide a slight ray of hope for both sides to recognize the futility of unilateral and violent actions, which end in gaining very little. The routine hollow declarations of victory by both the Israelis and Hamas were only to be expected.

Nevertheless, considering the suffering and destruction, a more reflective approach could and should have been expected. Unfortunately one of the first actions taken by Israel following the 50 days of pounding Gaza and killing more than 2,000 Palestinians, was to expropriate around 4,000 dunams (400 hectares) of land in the occupied West Bank, not far from Bethlehem. According to the Israeli NGO Peace Now, this land seizure will exceed any that have taken place in the last three decades. According to the Israeli Civil Administration in the occupied territories, this latest act of Israeli land grab was ordered by the government as a form of punishment for the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teenagers earlier this summer. This represents a much skewed rationality on the part of the decision makers in Jerusalem. Following the despicable murder of the Israeli teenagers two months ago, the Gazans have been subjected to lethal attacks and destruction by Israeli military forces.

Expropriating more land in the West Bank, especially considering the timing of this announcement, is not only damaging to the Palestinians, but also harms the interests of Israel

Yossi Mekelberg

Expropriating more land in the West Bank, especially considering the timing of this announcement, is not only damaging to the Palestinians, but also harms the interests of Israel. Taking a political decision which is bound to irk the entire international community is ill-judged. Making this move so soon after the Israeli government was widely criticized by a majority of countries in the world for the use of excessive force in Gaza, represents total impudence. Even those who harbor much sympathy for Israel’s security needs find her military actions disproportionate. When this is followed by declaring a substantial piece of land in the West Bank as “state land,” in utter defiance of international law and every other government around the world, one can only describe it as an irresponsible act of political folly. The action was instantly followed by worldwide condemnation. The U.S. immediately expressed opposition to this move and any further expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A State Department spokesperson argued that it undermined prospects for a viable Palestinian state in the occupied territories as part of a future peace agreement. John Kerry raised his concerns directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu, demanding that the Israeli government reverse this decision. Israel’s act was described by U.S. state department officials as “counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.” If anything unites both Israel’s friends and enemies, it is the condemnation of building more settlements in the West Bank, let alone the annexation of land.

Obvious outrage

The Israeli decision caused obvious outrage among the Palestinian leadership. They witness the rapid expansion of the settlements daily and with it the disappearance of Palestinian land and consequently the disappearing prospect of an independent and viable Palestinian state. The unremitting land grab, especially now, is counterproductive for the Israeli government. It unites the Fatah and Hamas movements in their indignation, following a rather strained period between the two as a result of the war in Gaza.

Nothing more clearly conveys to the Palestinians that the Israeli government is not sincere in negotiating the two state solution with them than the constant expansion of settlements. This constant disappearance of Palestinian land through the building of settlements delivers a more fatal blow to a two state solution than either the aggression of the occupation, or the force used in Gaza. During the hostilities in Gaza Netanyahu spoke on a new “diplomatic horizon,” which raised some hope that he might show more flexibility in his dealings with the Palestinian Authority. As it happens, it was a mere a tactical attempt to avert some of the criticism against authorizing the use of disproportionate force in Gaza. It was not a genuine strategic shift to a more pragmatic approach towards the West Bank.

This recent episode of settlements expansion is also indicative of the shortcomings of the Israeli decision making process. In the face of U.S. anger at the announcement of the expropriation of the settlements, a number of the Israeli prime minister’s advisors claimed that he was not informed about the announcement by the Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in advance. The latter responded that he did not have to do so because this was discussed and agreed upon in the government, following the murder of the Israeli teenagers and in any case it was within the minister’s authority to do so without informing the prime minister. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was quick to jump into the fray. He claimed that the thinking behind the expropriation of land was to consolidate settlements blocs. It was actually nothing to do with punitive measures towards the. This latest charade exposes a government which is in complete disarray, without a coherent policy or the slightest understanding of handling public diplomacy. Decisions with far reaching international implications are taken without proper consultation. Moreover, implementing a decision of this nature, which was taken before Operation Protective Edge, without further discussion to consider its repercussions, casts doubt on the judgment of this government. Even if the assertion made by some Israeli ministers is correct, that this land is most likely to be annexed to Israel in a land swap with the Palestinians in a future peace agreement, it begs the questions why can it not wait until peace negotiations are successfully concluded? Or is this another measure to put pressure on the Palestinian negotiators to rush into making concessions?

The claim that the prime minister was oblivious of the timing of the announcement puts into question his leadership and whether he asserts any control over his own government. The act of confiscating more land is an evidence of his and his government’s weakness. They take these steps in order to appease the right wing in Israel, who criticized the government for ending the war with the Hamas without a conclusive outcome. Nothing appeases them more than building and expanding settlements because in their eyes they establish irreversible facts on the ground. Sadly, in the absence of a genuine peace process and with an international community who is unwilling to make its opinion count, the hills of the West Bank will be covered with more Israeli settlements. This in return makes a two state solution a fading, even non-existent, possibility.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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