Now he tells us. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sept. 29 that his country must withdraw from the Occupied Territories, which it has held since 1968, including East Jerusalem. “We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories,” he said. “This is what we have to do.”
For the past thirty-five years, Olmert has been a staunch supporter of the occupation of Palestinian land and the building of Jewish settlements. Only now, as he is leaving office, is he coming around to the moral and practical view that the occupation and the settlements must end. But on the ground, they are continuing. Settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem doubled their construction of houses this year, according to the Israeli group Peace Now. In East Jerusalem, settlers are building close to 1,800 dwelling units and 2,600 more on the West Bank. Jewish settlements penetrate the Territories with 135 separate communities and a few dozen residential outposts. There are 430,000 settlers who live in these communities, which cover 6 percent of occupied land. But these residential structures are integrated into a much wider area. Settlements are linked with Israel proper through an extensive network of roads, checkpoints and military installations. Israel has erected a Berlin-type wall that surrounds the settlements. The cement fence has allowed Israel to cut deeper into precious Palestinian land. Building Jewish settlements undermines the future of Palestinians and weakens the long-term security of Israel. It also erodes Israel’s democracy, hardens the resistance of Palestinians and thwarts U.S. peace mediation. Despite the evacuation from Gaza, Israel controls all the Territories, an area with a population of 5.5 million Palestinians, almost the size of the Jewish population. In 1967, the United Nations designated the Territories, through Resolution 242, to be the Palestinian state. The first byproduct of the expansion of settlements is the moral erosion of Israel. It cannot be a democracy when half of the people who live under its sovereignty are oppressed. The second byproduct of these settlements is the growing exasperation of the Palestinian people. Today, despite rising suffering in Hamas-ruled Gaza and despite the failure of Palestinians to reap the fruits of militancy, the Islamic resistance remains popular among Palestinians. Continually driving Palestinians beyond despair is not a sensible survival strategy for Israel. The third byproduct of the settlement policy is the delaying of a peace accord. In a descending order of firmness, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States have over the years criticized settlement expansion. Israel’s annexation of land thwarts these efforts. In August, on a mission to promote peace in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was ridiculously mild in criticism. She described the expansion as acts that do not “advance the cause of peace.” It doesn’t help Washington to act helpless in face of a growing record of Israeli violation of international law. Many Israelis rationalize the settlements by claiming they constitute a security zone. Settlers argue that their neighborhoods serve as a demographic belt of defense to distance Palestinians from Israel. Prime Minister Olmert rebutted that view: “Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another 100 meters, that this is what will make the difference for the State of Israel’s basic security?” Now that Olmert has recognized the futility of the settlement policy, now that he has followed in the footsteps of other Israeli leaders before him like Abba Eban, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, it’s time for the rest of us to recognize it, too. The United States should insist that Israel dismantle its settlements and withdraw from the Occupied Territories.
Ghassan Michel Rubeiz, a social scientist and political commentator on the Middle East, is the former secretary of the Middle East for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.