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Settlements against peace

Richard Burden MP on obstacles to Obama's Middle East initiative.

At the beginning of September President Obama staked much political capital and personal energy on reopening direct peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, after a two year hiatus. The latest rounds of negotiations were greeted with near universal scepticism, sadly the efforts look doomed to count for nought.

For the government of Benjamin Netanyahu it appears that talk is cheap when actions say more. Barely three weeks after the US President had wrestled the parties back to the negotiating table and Israel quickly demonstrated its lack of political will by refusing to extend its ten month moratorium on settlement construction.

The 'freeze', as it was commonly referred to, was in any case more of a slowdown than a complete halt. New settlements that were hurriedly given planning permission before the moratorium came into effect continued to spring up across the West Bank, whilst in Occupied East Jerusalem Israel has continued to press on with its de-Arabisation of the city through evictions and the demolition of Palestinian property. Over the first six months of this year, 230 Palestinian homes have been demolished and over 1000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem made homeless. 50,000 homes for Jewish settlers are in various stages of development! Elsewhere the steady construction of new properties for settlers continues apace. Peace Now, an Israeli NGO, claims that across the West Bank 600 units started construction after the 'freeze' had supposedly begun.

Away from the West Bank Israel continues to hold in place its crippling siege of Gaza. Following the raid upon the aid ship, the Mavi Marmara, in which nine Turkish civilians were shot dead by Israeli commandos, the international community was suitably jolted to apply real pressure to end the three year long blockade. From June 2007 Israel prevented all but the most basic of humanitarian items just 73 in total from entering a territory, home to over 1.5 million people. Construction materials such as concrete, steel and glass have been barred, along with school text books, petrol, farming products, numerous food items and even a batch of school desks, intended for use in United Nations' schools. All exports from the territory were similarly prevented.

The result was the collapse of Gaza as a functioning social entity. Private enterprise imploded over night, the economy collapsed. People were forced to survive on handouts from the international community. In the midst of this misery, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a 22-day long assault on Gaza that in the words of the UN-mandated inquiry amounted to a 'collective punishment' of the civilian population and their infrastructure. A total of 50,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, 280 schools were attacked, 1,400 people killed (of whom 352 were children). Still the siege stretched on: throughout 2009; past the one thousand day landmark; and into 2010. The people of Gaza were refused the materials with which to rebuild their homes and lives. The smuggling tunnels that traverse the border with Egypt are the only solace for those fortunate enough to afford the inflated prices of the black market.

Following the attack upon the aid boat Israel was forced to announce an 'easing' in policy towards the Strip. Instead of a 'white list' of items permitted to enter, a 'black list' of barred items would instead be brought into operation. Over three months later the situation at the crossing points remains depressingly familiar. Of the 15,500 trucks that are supposed to enter Gaza each month under the internationally brokered Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA), only 37% of this total is being allowed in. Palestinians are unable to freely move between Gaza and the West Bank whilst aid workers and international NGO staff are being turned away from the border with depressing regularity. Exports remain barred, with only minimal exceptions, whilst construction materials are still only available for internationally backed projects. A Palestinian looking to rebuild his home or business must still turn to smuggled materials.

The continuing siege of Gaza and settlement activity in the West Bank demonstrates that no matter what its leaders say in front of the cameras in Washington, Israel is not willing to take the actions required to bring about peace.

Despite all this, there remains considerable international pressure on President Abbas to continue talks with Israel. The image of Palestinians walking away from talks or at least appearing to do so would be ruthlessly exploited by Israel as a sign that the Palestinians are not serious partners. Meanwhile, President Abbas may judge perhaps accurately that his breaking off talks could also make the USA less inclined to put any diplomatic pressure on Israel to behave responsibly. He knows such pressure hasn't amounted to much in practice but he may still believe that he has no realistic alternative but to continue trying to keep Obama and others on board. But when settlements continue to eat into Palestinian land, when the people of Gaza still depend on ramshackle tunnels to do more than survive, it is hardly surprising that President Abbas' credibility is undermined at home, along with faith in the peace process itself.

The consequences of that could herald more blood and more horror for Palestinians and Israelis and real dangers for stability in the wider Middle East. The international community has to decide whether it is prepared to carry on seeing President Abbas humiliated and the chances of peace undermined by an Israel conceited enough to claim to be negotiating whilst simultaneously refusing to even temporarily halt its colonisation of Palestinian land.