Home / In the Media / How settlements in the West Bank are creating a new reality, brick by brick

How settlements in the West Bank are creating a new reality, brick by brick

Rory McCarthy | The Guardian

24 August 2009

There is a hilltop east of Jerusalem with striking views down into Jericho, across the dry slopes of the West Bank and on to the Dead Sea. From the red ochre of the rock came the name Ma’ale Adumim, Hebrew for the Red Ascent.

Today it is a city of more than 30,000 people, with red-roofed apartment blocks, shopping malls, a public swimming pool and ancient olive trees sitting on neat roundabouts. A major highway runs down the hill, across the valley up into the centre of Jerusalem and beyond, connecting conveniently to Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean coast.

The rise of Ma’ale Adumim captures the success of Israel’s vast settlement project and the extent of the challenge posed to any future Palestinian state by the settlements and the often overlooked infrastructure of Israel’s occupation.

In March 1975 there was no Ma’ale Adumim. After Israel captured and occupied the West Bank in the 1967 war the site was earmarked as a an industrial park. A group of activist settlers from the Gush Emunim — the Bloc of the Faithful — arrived one morning and built a water tower and simple concrete hut. They were removed that day by soldiers, but in December that year the first settler families moved in for good. The city then grew exponentially.

The site is a compelling example of how infrastructure is used to extend Israel’s reach around and well beyond the settlement. Ma’ale Adumim’s buildings seem to cover one main hilltop, but the municipal area of the settlement is nearly 20 square miles, the size of Tel Aviv. Then there are the Israeli-built roads connecting Ma’ale Adumim with nearby smaller, satellite settlements, as well as a major highway running further east past Jericho and cutting across the West Bank until it reaches the Jordanian border. Israel is now building its steel and concrete West Bank barrier around Ma’ale Adumim and the other smaller settlements, effectively incorporating them on the “Israeli” side and by doing so taking another 24 square miles of the West Bank.

To the north and south of Ma’ale Adumim stretches a swath of land that is a closed military area, where access for Palestinians is prohibited. Just across the valley is an area known as E1, where hillsides have been terraced, a police station built and roads laid in preparation for a further 3,500 settler housing units, as well as offices, sports centres, 10 hotels and a cemetery. Other land nearby is designated Area C, a creation of the Oslo accords of the early 1990s, meaning Israel has full administrative and security control. In effect that means no Palestinians can build.

So while the apartment blocks of Ma’ale Adumim seem to have a limited though strategic footprint, Israel’s actual control extends much further and deeper into the West Bank. It is a pattern repeated again and again across the West Bank.

None of this should be a surprise. It becomes quickly obvious to those who have ever travelled through the West Bank. There are also countless reports from the UN, the World Bank and Israeli and Palestinian groups documenting the reality on the ground.

Then there are the often striking admissions from within the establishment. Two years ago Haggai Alon, an adviser to the then Israeli defence minister Amir Peretz, told Ha’aretz that Israel was using the West Bank barrier to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state and that the Israel Defence Force was carrying out an “apartheid policy” in emptying the city of Hebron of Palestinians, setting up roadblocks across the West Bank and co-operating with settlers. “The actual policy of the IDF, especially in recent years, is creating profound changes that threaten to make it impossible to leave the West Bank,” Alon said. “We cannot allow the executive ranks to get us stuck in an irreversible binational situation.”

Or look at what Ariel Sharon, former prime minister and self-described pragmatic Zionist, wrote of his post-1967 plans for the Palestinian territories and the importance of control: “What I thought was that, regardless of whatever political solution the future might hold, we would have to keep the high controlling terrain — to protect and give depth to the tiny heartland along the coast, to be able to defend ourselves on the line of the river Jordan, and to secure Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish people forever. That was an indispensable, necessary minimum.”

In the 42 years since Israel captured the land, its control has grown apace. There are 149 settlements, together with at least another 100 “outposts” — smaller settlements unauthorised even by the Israeli government. Nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers now live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In order to protect the settlements and, as Israel argues, to impose law and order, came a series of what the UN calls “multi-layered restrictions”: checkpoints, trenches, earth mounds, road gates, roadblocks and a large restricted road network which Palestinians cannot use. Put together they seriously inhibit ordinary life for millions of Palestinians.

Then there is the West Bank barrier, begun at the height of the violence of the second intifada and today nearly 60% complete. When finished it will be 450 miles long, running inside the West Bank for 86% of its length.

It effectively attaches many of the major settlements to Israel and in doing so places nearly 10% of the West Bank and East Jerusalem on the “Israeli” side. When finished it will leave 35,000 Palestinians living in “closed areas” cut off from the rest of the West Bank and caught between the 1949 armistice line and the barrier.

Added to that are the large nature reserves and military closed areas, which Palestinians cannot enter and which are mainly in the Jordan Valley or near the Dead Sea. There are also 48 Israeli military bases. Beyond that, Israel has full control over Area C, which makes up nearly two-thirds of the West Bank. Planning restrictions are tight: 94% of building permit applications have been refused between 2000 and 2007, according to the UN. Today there are around 3,000 pending demolition orders across the West Bank.

Instead, the Palestinians are confined to their fragmented urban areas, often behind checkpoints and where talk of a future contiguous, viable Palestinian state seems ever more remote. The effect of this political geography is so striking that even George Bush, who was perhaps the US president most supportive of Israel, was moved early last year to say of a future Palestine: “Swiss cheese isn’t going to work when it comes to the outline of a state.”

Others are more direct. In their study Lords of the Land, Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, an Israeli academic and a journalist, write: “The Jewish settlement, at God’s command and at the government’s will, has thus caused continuing and extensive damage to the basic human rights of the Palestinians who live in the territories, among them the rights to personal liberty, freedom of movement, and property; it has also thwarted any possibility for the realisation of the collective rights of those who lived in the territory before the intrusion of the Israeli forces, such as the right to national self-determination, including statehood.”