On the same day the world heaped rare praise on Israel for pulling out of the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government announced plans to seize 60 square kilometres of Palestinian land east of Jerusalem.
The land grab had been anticipated for some time, but was seen as further proof that Mr. Sharon is looking to impose a unilateral settlement on the Palestinians that will see Israel retain large swaths of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel has tightened its control over both at the same time it has been evicting Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, which it seized along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967.
The order, which was approved over the weekend and made public yesterday, will result in the seizure of four tracts of Palestinian land between Jerusalem’s eastern boundary and the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank. Israel plans to enclose the entire area within its controversial security barrier, a 600-kilometre network of cement blocks and razor-wire fence that has been ruled illegal by the World Court. If the barrier extends to enclose Maale Adumim, it will stretch some 25 kilometres into Palestinian land, or half the width of the West Bank.
Many believe the planned route for the barrier would threaten the viability of a future Palestinian state by making travel between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank difficult. It would also isolate Palestinians from Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides as their capital.
Mr. Sharon has said that Maale Adumim, which is home to 30,000 people, will remain part of Israel forever and that a new road connecting Ramallah and Bethlehem can be built east of the security barrier to ease travel for Palestinians. Israel views the barrier as a security necessity and credits it for the declining number of suicide attacks carried out by Palestinian militants.
The relative peace in the old walled city was broken yesterday when a Palestinian stabbed to death an ultra-Orthodox American Jew and wounded another in an Arab market near the Jaffa Gate, police and a hospital spokeswoman told Reuters News Agency. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but police said the attack had nationalist overtones and were searching for the assailant.
Palestinian leaders, who just days earlier had been commending Mr. Sharon for his groundbreaking decision to withdraw from Gaza, returned to condemning his strategy of acting unilaterally. They accused him of undermining the internationally sponsored “road map” peacemaking framework, which calls for an immediate freeze in Israel’s building of new settlements.
“Such decisions will only serve to undermine any efforts to resume [peace] negotiations,” said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official. He accused Mr. Sharon of taking advantage of the international goodwill gained from the Gaza pullout to establish new facts on the ground in the West Bank. “This will destroy [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush’s vision of a two-state solution.”
The Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank have been declared illegal by the United Nations and have been cited by Palestinians as key sparks in setting off two bloody intifadas, or uprisings, that have left thousands dead on both sides.
The Israeli media yesterday reported that the order sets the stage for building the so-called E-1 bloc of 3,500 new housing units between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem. However, Israeli officials denied that they had decided to go ahead with E-1, which has been vehemently opposed by the United States, the main broker in peace negotiations, as a breach of the road map.
The U.S. State Department yesterday issued a statement that was implicitly critical of building a wall around Maale Adumim. The barrier “is a problem to the extent that it prejudges final borders, confiscates Palestinian property or imposes further hardship on the Palestinian people,” the statement said.
The announcement of the land grab came on the same day that the United Nations Security Council passed a statement praising Israel’s decision to leave Gaza. “The members of the Security Council welcome the beginning of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank and they commend the ongoing implementation of this process,” the statement read.
Earlier, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan commended Mr. Sharon’s courage and leadership during the Gaza pullout, which featured emotional scenes of tearful Israeli soldiers pulling Jewish settlers out of the homes they had lived in for years.
Capitalizing on the rare praise from the world body, Mr. Sharon has announced that he intends to visit UN headquarters in New York and address the General Assembly.
Globe & Mail