George S. Hishmeh
ISRAEL’S continued expansionist policies are about to torpedo all intentions, international or local, to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians and other Arab states. As long as the Israeli occupation of Palestine, now in its 50th year, continues, peace will remain a far-fetched possibility, thanks to the failure of Western powers, especially the United States, to twist Israel’s arm. A crucial step that Washington needs to take is cutting its financial and military support that has disappointingly increased lately.
This time around, Israel’s expansionist objectives are loud and clear. In one recent case, it followed the Palestinian announcement earlier this month about its negotiations with the Egyptian government over the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip, which has a 25-mile (40.2km) coastline.
The Palestinian status had been upgraded in November 2002 by the United Nations General Assembly, awarding that Israeli-occupied region, where 1.8 Palestinians live, the status of a non-member observer. Accordingly, the Palestinian ambassador at the United Nations, Riyad H. Mansour, explained that the Palestinians were now entitled to declare an undersea “exclusive economic zone” in the Mediterranean.
In other words, the Palestinians will be negotiating with the Egyptians, who control the southern border of the Gaza Strip, over developing this portion of Palestine. Their plans include building an airport and a seaport among other much-needed projects to improve life in that region.
But a few days later, Israel’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, revealed that he, too, is pushing for the construction of an “artificial island” off the besieged coast of Gaza, saying it will give the Palestinians their one and only seaport — and maybe a hotel and an international airport.
The Palestinians have greeted the plan with scepticism, voicing concern that Israel’s real aim is to further cut off Gaza from the Palestinian West Bank. Katz said his plan calls for an 8-square-kilometre island linked to Gaza by a 5km-bridge. The cost of these projected Israeli developments is estimated at $5 billion.
Adding oil to the fire, Israel is reportedly now constructing a deep underground wall around the Gaza Strip, in an attempt, according to The Washington Post, to counter the threat of assault tunnels built by Hamas, the Palestinian movement that rules the strategic coastal enclave.
The wall will extend around the length of the Palestinian territory’s roughly 40-mile (around 64km) border with Israel and cost an estimated $570 million. The “only move” that will make Israelis feel more secure, The Washington Post quoted an Israeli settler as saying, “is to reach a point of interaction and normalisation between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, the way it once was”.
Obviously this is not the view of the ultra-rightwing Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. His government has now allocated about $20 million in additional financing for Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a step which The New York Times interpreted as “underlining its strengthened rightwing orientation and raising the ire of political opponents and the Palestinians”.
“Most countries,” the paper’s Jerusalem-based correspondent, Isabel Kershner, underlined, “view settlement construction as a violation of international law and an impediment to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the Obama administration has described the settlements as ‘illegitimate’.”
But, she added, “Israel considers the West Bank territory that it conquered from Jordan in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 to be disputed, not occupied, and says the fate of the settlements should be determined in negotiations”.
Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, highlighted the Palestinians’ position, saying: “It is time for the international community to assume its responsibilities towards this extremist government that openly supports apartheid and stands against the two-state solution.”
But whether US Secretary of State John Kerry will take up this position when he is scheduled to meet with the Israeli prime minister next week is most likely far-fetched despite the growing international pressure for the resumption of peace talks. Netanyahu is on record as opposing the French initiative in this respect in contrast to the fact that the Palestinians had welcomed the French move.
Coincidentally, the European Council announced this week that it stands ready to provide the Israelis and the Palestinians with massive, economic and security support as part of any peace agreement.
A statement to this effect was issued by European Council President Donald Tusk, who had just met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Brussels. He stressed that “a lasting peace in the region remains a top priority for the EU”. The EU foreign ministers had expressed in a statement released on Monday after their meeting in Brussels that they hope to hold an international conference before the end of the year to focus on Mideast peace.
Much as these gestures are welcome, nothing may happen before the twisting of Israel’s arm and curtailing continued financial and military support by the United States.