There are three categories of Israeli settlements:  East Jerusalem neighborhoods forming a ring around Jerusalem,  large settlement blocs (i.e. small cities with more than 20,000 residents), and  small settlements and illegal “outposts” of a few dozen families each built strategically throughout the West Bank.
The Israeli consensus is that categories #1 and #2 will remain in Israel with land swaps to the future state of Palestine, and Israeli settlements and outposts in category #3 will be evacuated.
The recent announcement by PM Netanyahu of construction of 1500 apartments that so infuriated the Palestinians in Ramat Shlomo, a northern Jerusalem neighborhood, concerns building in category #1. Bibi is right, that these will remain Israeli. He made the announcement, most believe, for internal political reasons, to placate right-wing members of his government who were infuriated by the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners convicted of murdering Israelis.
[Note: There is one other sub-category of settlement in East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods that I will address in my next blog.]
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, the General Secretary of the Palestine National Initiative (PNI) and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, compares the West Bank to a piece of cheese in which one side (Israel) takes bites while the other side (Palestine) is prevented from doing so. He warns that soon there will be no cheese left to share, and “Palestine” will have been eaten-up by Jewish settlements.
Is Dr. Barghouti correct? This is the question we asked of Leor Amichai, the director of “Settlement Watch” for Shalom Achshav, a liberal Israeli advocacy organization, when he took us on a tour of the hills around Ariel and Nablus deep into the West Bank.
Every year Shalom Achshav updates a West Bank map that includes brown and blue circles of different sizes, as well as small red dots. The brown circles are Palestinian cities and villages, the blue are Israeli settlements, and the red dots are Israeli “outposts” (i.e. illegal settlements according to the Israeli government). The size of the brown and blue circles is determined by population, ranging from a few dozen families to 50,000 inhabitants.
There are more than 100 blue circles speckled strategically all over the West Bank, 30 red dots south of Bethlehem, 30 more around Jerusalem, Jericho and Ramallah, 50 around Ariel, Nablus and Qalqiliya, and 6 in the far north, for a grand total of about 120 illegal red-dot-Israeli outposts.
The Israeli government has promised to remove these outposts, but has failed to do so while at the same time looking the other way as regional West Bank settlement councils provide, using Israeli tax money, the necessary infrastructure of water, electricity, gas, and security.
While on Sabbatical leave in Jerusalem two years ago, Leor took me to scout with him new outposts being built near Jerusalem. As I compare the 2011 and 2013 Shalom Achshav maps, there are many more red dots today than there were just two years ago.
Shalom Achshav says that 42% of the West Bank is currently zoned for Jewish settlements, 12% of the total West Bank population are Jewish settlers, 4% of all Israelis are settlers, and in the event of a two-state agreement, 1.8% of all Israelis (i.e. 100,000 Jews) would need to move from category #3 settlements/outposts back onto the Israeli side of the border.
Shalom Achshav and B’tzelem (another leading Israeli human rights organization) claim further that fully 33% of the land on which Israeli settlements are built in the West Bank is on privately owned and deeded Palestinian land.
Whether Israelis have the right to live anywhere they choose in the West Bank is not the issue. I believe they do, assuming they accept the sovereignty of the future Palestinian state. The relevant issue today is whether it is politically wise for Israel to build settlements if doing so makes a two-state agreement more difficult to attain?
To this question, it seems to me to indeed be unwise. Category #3 settlements and outposts have become a significant political problem in negotiations, but not as yet an insurmountable one.
Of the 100,000 settlers who will need to evacuate their settlements in a peace agreement (assuming no agreement is made for them to remain under Palestinian sovereignty), 70-80% moved to the West Bank so as to purchase inexpensive homes close to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. They, likely, will move back to Israel without incident with appropriate compensation.
The other 20-30% are ideologically and religiously driven settlers, many of whom are militant. It is unclear whether they will move peacefully or not.
PM Netanyahu’s announcement of new house construction in categories #1 and #2 is, without a doubt, politically provocative to Palestinians. Hopefully, however, this construction will not affect the outcome of negotiations.
And so Dr. Barghouti is both correct and not correct – the piece of cheese is getting smaller, but all hope is not yet lost. The time for an agreement is now!