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Peace Now & APN: Freeze construction in the “settlement blocs,” too

Belated praise for Top Five Bogus Excuses for Opposing a Settlement Freeze, a detailed refutation of several canards by the estimable Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now and Hagit Ofran, who run’s Peace Now’s Settlements Watch progam.

All five responses to these “excuses” are worth perusing, but I found one of them to be particularly instructive because it relies on cold, hard, geographical facts about the true nature of the so-called “settlement blocs.” Well-meaning people in Israel’s center-left and their supporters here consider those “blocs” to be sancrosanct. They are the “good settlements,” untouchable in any future agreement and therefore exempt from restrictions that these people agree should be imposed on the “bad settlements.” But what, precisely, are these settlement blocs you’ve been reading about all of these years? Your guess is as good as mine. See below:

Bogus excuse #2 – “Settlement “Blocs”: “Everyone knows that settlement blocs are going to be part of Israel under any future agreement. Since this is the case, it makes no sense to demand that construction in these areas stop.”

Fact: “Settlement bloc” is an informal term, having no legal definition or standing, either under Israeli or international law. It generally refers to areas where settlements have been established in relatively close proximity to one another and relatively close (as a cluster) to the Green Line. In the current political context, the term has become shorthand for clusters of settlements that likely will, according to some Israelis, remain part of Israel under any future peace agreement.

Throughout the history of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, Israel has left the blocs undefined, enabling their informal borders to grow year after year, as construction has systematically thickened and expanded them to include settlements and land located at a greater distance from their centers. The blocs and the settlements they contain are not recognized by the Palestinians or the international community as having any special status compared to other settlements, either now or in terms of a future peace agreement. Moreover, many of these “blocs” include what even Israel recognizes to be private Palestinian land.

At present, the best indication of Israel’s definition of the “blocs” is the route of the security barrier – that is, Israelis assume that what is on the Israeli side of the barrier is part of the “blocs,” and what is on the Palestinian side of the barrier is not. However, this definition ignores the fact that the route of the barrier has been gerrymandered to include as many settlements as possible and to encompass huge areas of adjacent land. As a result, while the built-up area of the settlements on the “Israeli” side of the barrier is approximately 7,300 acres, the total area of West Bank land that is de facto annexed by the barrier is approximately 148,000 acres, or around 20 times the size of the built-up area of the settlements. Thus, while many may wish to portray these “blocs” as something that is non-controversial, the situation on the ground tells a very different story. For example:

–In the case of the “Ma’ale Adumim bloc” (east of Jerusalem), the barrier route takes up land many times the size of Ma’ale Adumim, including the area of the planned mega-settlement of E1, a settlement whose construction successive US administrations have recognized as potentially fatal to the two-state solution.

–In the case of the “Givat Ze’ev bloc” (north of Jerusalem), the barrier route extends so far north of the existing settlement that if construction were permitted to fill the bloc, the settlement could expand at least 5 times in size and reach the very edge of Ramallah – bearing in mind that construction is now underway in this “bloc” for a new ultra-Orthodox settlement (whose residents have an average of 7 children).

–In the case of the “Etzion bloc” (south of Jerusalem), the route of the barrier not only captures a huge amount of territory that is not part of the built-up area of the settlements, but it extends deep into the West Bank to include the settlement of Efrat, and in doing so severs Bethlehem completely from the southern West Bank (leaving the city of Bethlehem an isolated enclave between the southern Jerusalem barrier and the Gush Etzion bloc).

–Further north, in the case of the “Ariel bloc” and “Qedumim bloc,” these blocs are actually narrow fingers reaching deep inside the West Bank – with the settlement of Ariel, for example, located almost exactly halfway between the Green Line and the Jordan River. Regardless of ideology, it is difficult to imagine a viable peace agreement that leaves these areas under Israeli control.

Based on past negotiations, including the unofficial Geneva Initiative process, it seems likely that Palestinians will be willing to accept a peace agreement under which Israel retains control of some settlements, but only in return for (a) the evacuation of all other settlements and (b) land swaps, equal in size and quality, to compensate for the land kept by Israel. This is an important principle that, in the context of serious peace negotiations, could play a key role in the achievement of a viable final status agreement. However, it is disingenuous to cherry-pick this principle in order to justify new settlement construction outside the context of such negotiations and absent a peace agreement.

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