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Settlements in Focus - Vol. 3, Issue 2: "Olmert's First Year"

A look at Olmert's policy toward settlements

Settlements in Focus

Olmert's First Year (Vol. 3, Issue 2)
A publication of Americans for Peace Now

In general, how would you characterize Olmert's policy toward settlements in the West Bank during his first year in office?

Ehud Olmert took over the Prime Minister's office on January 4, 2006 (as acting Prime Minister, after the incapacitation of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon). Thus, even though he was not elected to office until March 2006, Olmert bears responsibility for all settlement activity in 2006.

Overall, Olmert's tenure in office has been characterized by two phenomena. First, there has been a complete halt to any actions by Israel -- or even plans for action - with respect to evacuating settlements or outposts. Second, construction in settlements and outposts has continued unabated.

Today it appears that Olmert - and Israel - are paralyzed with respect to settlements. Bilateralism (i.e., negotiating with the Palestinians over the future of land and settlements) is viewed as too "costly" in terms of compromises Israel would have to make, and in any case, current Palestinian politics have made it easy for some to argue that there is no partner with whom to negotiate. At the same time, unilateralism (in terms of withdrawals from land and evacuation of settlements) has fallen out of favor (discussed below). With neither bilateralism nor unilateralism viewed as an option at present, the Olmert government has elected to maintain the longstanding status quo policy in the West Bank - permitting and supporting the growth of settlements, with the consequences of this growth to be dealt with at some undetermined time in the future.

Why has Olmert's idea of "convergence" or "realignment" been dropped?

Olmert was elected by the Israeli public primarily on the strength of his promise to carry out his "convergence" or "realignment" plan - a plan to evacuate a large number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and consolidate Israel's hold on key settlement "blocs." This plan subsequently vanished entirely from the national agenda, mainly due to the summer 2006 war in Lebanon and violence in the Gaza Strip.

Overall, the Israeli population today views unilateralism very differently than it did a year ago. Whereas Israelis had once embraced unilateralism as a policy that enabled Israel to look after its own interests and relieved Israel of the need to deal with the Palestinians at all, developments in 2006 made many Israelis reconsider this position. Specifically, the war in Lebanon and the chaos and violence that engulfed the Gaza Strip in 2006 were viewed by many Israelis as evidence that unilateral withdrawals by Israel actually encourage violence - a conclusion which seems to be substantiated by the situation in Gaza (although the situation in Lebanon is far more complicated). On January 9, 2007, Olmert was quoted in Ha'aretz explicitly describing the shift in his own thinking, saying "I changed my mind regarding farther unilateral withdrawals because of Gaza and Lebanon." [For the record, Peace Now has long argued that unilateralism is at best a tool of limited value. In 2005, Peace Now pressed the Sharon government to negotiate its withdrawal from Gaza with President Mahmoud Abbas - something that would almost certainly have bolstered Abbas' political strength and standing (and might have prevented the Hamas victory in the January 2006 Palestinian elections) and would have enabled Israel to establish joint security arrangements.]

The fact that the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority has been unwilling to meet the Quartet's conditions for engagement - recognition of Israel, disavowal of violence, and committing to previously-signed agreements - played into the Olmert government's position that no further disengagements are possible, lest Israeli actions be seen as rewarding Hamas.

In addition, the Olmert government's policy with respect to settlements (and outposts) in the West Bank is a function of the overall political weakness of the Olmert government. Following the military debacle in Lebanon, Olmert and his government appeared unable to re-group and present any coherent policy either in support of unilateralism or in place of it. The weakness of the Olmert government and its lack of any real policy on settlements was underscored when, in an effort to shore up support, Olmert invited Avigdor Leiberman - a politician of the far-right wing and staunch advocate of the settlers (and a settler himself) who had opposed Israeli disengagement from Gaza - to join his coalition.

Specifically, what has been Olmert's record on settlements and outposts?

In seeking to characterize Israeli settlement activity during the last year, the words "continuity" and "momentum" come to mind. Settlement policy in 2006, and resulting developments on the ground, were basically a continuation of the pre-existing policies. The Olmert government, like the Sharon government that preceded it, did not even make a pretense of trying to live up the Israeli government's own commitments to the U.S. and the international community under the Roadmap. According to the Roadmap, in Phase I, Israel is required to dismantle all settlement outposts erected since March 2001 and freeze "all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)." Similarly, the Olmert government did not take any concrete steps to implement the findings of the government-mandated investigation of illegal settlement outposts (the Sasson Report, a report issued in March 2005 looking exhaustively at the issue of Israeli settlement outposts in the West Bank, prepared at the direction of Prime Minister Sharon by Israeli attorney Talia Sasson).

There are key parameters by which this can and should be measured, all of which tell the same story:

  • Construction of housing units in the settlements
  • Growth of the settler population
  • Dismantling and/or construction of outposts
  • Construction of infrastructure, such as new bypass roads

Each of these is dealt with, in detail, below.

What was the record in 2006 with respect to construction in settlements?

General: During 2006, construction continued in a large number of settlements on both sides of the route of the West Bank security barrier - a phenomenon that is inconsistent with an Israeli intention to evacuate settlements or to comply with repeated commitments made to the U.S. (including in the Road Map) to stop expanding settlements. In total, looking at construction of buildings, placement of trailers and other temporary structures, and infrastructure and earthworks, 68% of changes (namely different types of construction and developments) in settlements in 2006 took place in settlements on the west side of the security barrier, while 32% took place in settlements located east of the barrier.

Locations: Overall, construction continued to be focused in the largest settlements located west of the route of the security barrier, and particularly in ultra-Orthodox settlements in this category. At the same time, construction continued in settlements located east of the route of the security barrier, albeit on a much smaller scale (as was the case in prior years).

  • Largest building sites in the West Bank: Ma'ale Adumim, Modi'in Illit, Beitar Illit
  • Large building sites in the West Bank: Ariel, Efrat, Alfei Menashe, Giv'at Ze'ev
  • Medium-sized building sites in the West Bank: El'azar, Karnei Shomron, Kiryat Arba, Alon (Kfar Adumim), Rosh Tzurim, Nirit site (Alfei Menashe), Kedumim

Government Tenders: During 2006, tenders were publicized for 952 housing units in the settlements. All of the tenders were publicized beginning in June 2006, that is, after the March 2006 elections and the emergence of the Kadima-Labor coalition government. All of the tenders during this year were for construction planned in settlements located west of the separation fence's route, as approved by the Israeli government on April 30, 2006. We note that during 2005, tenders were published for 1,184 housing units in the settlements.

Private Construction: In addition to government-sponsored construction and construction tenders, privately-planned, privately-financed construction is ongoing in a large number of settlements. These include: Har Adar, Har Gilo, South Giv'at Ze'ev - Mt. Shmuel, Hashmonaim, Keidar, Barqan, Sha'arei Tikva, Elkana, Beit Arye, Neriya (Talmon), Sansana, Nofei Prat (Kfar Adumim), Carmel, Pedu'el, Yakir, Neve Daniel, Oranit, Mevo Horon, Gitit, Ofra, Beit El, Geva Binyamin, Mitzpe Yericho, Eli (15 new containers), Susiya (10 new containers), and Tko'a.

Construction Starts: To date, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) has not yet published final numbers regarding building starts in the West Bank for 2006. However, according to interim numbers reported by the CBS for the first three quarters of 2006 (that is, until the end of September), 1272 building starts were recorded from January-September 2006. Factoring in additional, as-yet unreported building starts for October-December 2006, it is clear that the pace of building in settlements in 2006 was comparable to that of previous years (in 2005, 1727 building starts were recorded; in 2004, 1926 building starts were recorded).

What was the record in 2006 with respect to growth of the settler population?

The settler population continued to grow in 2006 at a pace that outstripped population growth inside the Green Line and clearly exceeded "natural growth." According to the CBS, the number of settlers at the beginning of 2006 was approximately 247,300. To date, the CBS has not yet published official statistics regarding the number of settlers at the end of 2006. According to the Ministry of the Interior, however, at the end of 2006 some 268,000 Israelis were living in the settlements. Assuming that the final numbers will be somewhat lower than those of the Interior Ministry (as is usually the case), it nonetheless appears that the settler population grew by around 5% in 2006, a continuation of the trend seen since 2001 (in Israel, the highest growth rate is in Jerusalem, where it stands at around 2.2% annually; for the overall population of Israel the growth rate in 2005 was 1.8%).

What was the record in 2006 with respect to dismantling/construction of outposts?

During 2006, no new outposts were established, and not a single populated outpost was dismantled. In addition, during 2006, previously-issued evacuation orders against 6 outposts were left un-implemented and growth was recorded in 5 of these 6 outposts. During this same period, significant construction/expansion of outposts occurred in most outposts, with 251 changes (including construction of permanent structures, infrastructure work, placement of new trailers, etc.) recorded by Peace Now. Of these changes, 20% took place in outposts located west of the security barrier, while 80% took place in outposts located east of the security barrier.

The popular image of a West Bank outpost consisting of young settler families "roughing it" in makeshift temporary structures is giving way to the increasingly widespread phenomenon of permanent construction in an increasing number of outposts (i.e., laying of foundations and construction of permanent buildings with associated infrastructure). During 2006, such permanent construction took place in 30 outposts, and new roads were paved or built to serve 7 outposts.

Of the 102 outposts in the West Bank today - home to around 2000 settlers - at least 50 were established after March 2001 (under the Roadmap, Israel has committed to dismantling all outposts established after this date). During 2006, growth was recorded in 27 outposts established after March 2001.

On February 1, following a successful court battle waged by Peace Now over the course of 7 months, the Israeli army demolished 9 permanent structures in the outpost of Amona. However, the victory is only partial, since the outpost itself remains. It is important to note that the entire outpost of Amona - not just the structures that were demolished - is located on land privately-owned by Palestinians and .the Palestinian owners still do not have access to their land. In the aftermath of the Amona demolitions, the government of Israel has taken no affirmative action to dismantle outposts or curtail the illegal construction taking place in them. The sole exception is the evacuation of three empty trailers that were standing in the outpost of Yitav East. However, as in Amona, the land in question remains inaccessible to the Palestinian landowners, since the area where the trailers stood remains fenced. Overall, one year after the events of Amona it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the settlers won the struggle over outposts, since the government continues to avoid enforcing the law upon them.

What was the record in 2006 with respect to construction of new infrastructure?

The Security Barrier: Clearly, it is impossible to talk about the settlements and the political reality on the ground today in the West Bank without mentioning the security barrier. Settlements and the security barrier are, in effect, two sides of the same coin, since the route of the barrier has been largely determined by the presence and needs of the settlers (even to the detriment of Israeli security needs). In 2006, construction of the security barrier continued apace.

Bypass Roads: During 2006 work commenced or continued on major West Bank bypass roads - roads being constructed for the express purpose of facilitating travel of settlers (in a manner that allows them to avoid contact with Palestinians). The most significant projects in 2006 were:

  • Za'atara Bypass Road: During 2006, construction of the Za'atara Bypass Road continued, albeit sporadically. This bypass road is meant to connect the settlements of Tko'a and Nokdim (some 1,800 settlers in total), located southeast of Bethlehem, with Jerusalem. It should be noted that most of the road has been paved for over a year, and Peace Now is unaware of the reasons that construction operations were at a standstill during most of the past year. Of late, perhaps due to pressure on the government by settlers in Gush Etzion, intensive construction on the road has been renewed.
  • Jerusalem-Jericho Road: Large-scale construction is taking place on the Jerusalem-Jericho Road in the section from Mitzpe Yericho to the Almog Junction. The road is being expanded from a two-lane road to four lanes.
  • Anatot-Mt. Scopus Road: Work on the Anatot - Mt. Scopus Road has continued throughout the year. This road will have separate lanes for settlers and Palestinians. Its significance for Israel is the fact that Anatot settlers (some 800 people) will be able to commute to Jerusalem without having to travel outside the fence.
  • Ofarim-Beit Arye Bypass Road: Work on a new bypass road connecting the settlements of Ofarim and Beit Arye Bypass resumed in the last weeks of 2006. The existing road connecting the settlements will be cut by construction of the security barrier (which will include both settlements). The new road is expected to continue farther north form Beit Arye, though the exact plan is still not known to us at this time.

Special Security Areas: In addition, 2006 saw further development of what are known as "Special Security Areas" - an area around a settlement designated as a protective barrier. Such an area is generally comprised of an enclosure fence and a wide space for patrols, and is usually located some 100 meters from the outermost houses, thus expanding the settlement's overall area substantially. Settlements with such "Special Security Areas" are: Ateret, Nahaliel, Shavei Shomron, Avnei Hefetz (preliminary construction work), Karmei Tzur, and Enav. In addition, "Special Security Areas" are slated to be built in 2007 in at least two more settlements - Susiya and Ro'i - both located east of the security barrier:

What has been the record of the Labor Party in 2006 vis a vis settlements?

In March 2006, the Labor party joined the Olmert government, with Labor Party leader Amir Peretz taking on the portfolio of Minister of Defense - perhaps the single most powerful position in terms of having the ability to take action against settlements.

Coming into government, the Labor Party's political platform included a commitment to implement the findings of the Sasson Report, stating: ".the conclusions of the Sasson report will be implemented immediately, including dismantling illegal outposts." Labor Party leader Amir Perez articulated a similar commitment when he began his term as Minister of Defense, saying that he would dismantle illegal outposts, starting with four outposts whose residents are known to have been involved in repeated acts of violence against Palestinians in the area.

Notwithstanding these commitments, as noted above, not a single populated outpost was evacuated in 2006; instead, most of the outposts actually expanded during Peretz's tenure in the Defense Ministry (where he has authority to take action against them). Even more troubling, the six outposts for which the previous Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, had issued "demarcation orders" (the official step needed in order to dismantle an outpost) were left untouched in 2006, and in fact, five of the six actually expanded during this period.

The clearest example of Labor's extremely poor performance on settlements is the Maskiyot affair. In brief, during the last week of 2006 it was made public that Defense Minister Peretz had approved construction of thirty homes adjacent to Maskiyot, a mostly disused army outpost established in the 1980s, located in the northwestern part of the West Bank approximately 15 kilometers from the Green Line (and far to the west of the route of the security barrier). The decision to approve building there for civilians was tantamount to a decision to establish a new settlement. Only after strong criticism from within Israel and from abroad did Peretz, in mid-January 2007, freeze the approval. While construction at Maskiyot now appears to be off the table, the affair raised very serious questions about the Olmert government's policy regarding settlements, and very serious questions about Peretz's judgment and personal views regarding West Bank settlements. For many in the Israeli peace camp, the Maskiyot affair is viewed as an outright betrayal by Peretz and Labor.

Produced by Lara Friedman, Americans for Peace Now,
and Dror Etkes, Peace Now