Middle East Peace Report
Americans For Peace Now
December 10, 2007 - 7:02pm

ADDING A WALL IN JERUSALEM: Israel issued a tender Tuesday for the construction of 307 new homes in Har Homa, an East Jerusalem neighborhood near Bethlehem. Har Homa, where about 4,000 Israelis now live, lies in territory that Israel de facto annexed in 1967 in an act that also expanded Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries.


In Israel, the construction announcement drew criticism. Peace Now issued a statement explaining that “Har Homa is not an integral part of urban structure of the city. It is an isolated quarter in the middle of Palestinian villages and is an obstacle to achieving a peace agreement on the issue of Jerusalem.”


The announcement of the tender drew international criticism as well. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a press conference on Friday that “we’re in a time when the goal is to build maximum confidence between the parties and this doesn’t help to build confidence… there just shouldn’t be anything that might try and judge final status, the outcomes of final status negotiations. It’s even more important now that we are really on the eve of the beginning of those negotiations.” Secretary Rice added, “I’ve made that position clear to the Israeli Government.”


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon characterized the move as “not helpful.” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that he was “astounded” by the report. Jordanian Minister for Information Nasser Judeh also criticized the construction.


Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said plainly that construction at Har Homa “is undermining Annapolis.” He added that “Israel’s ever-expanding settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territory poses the single greatest threat to the establishment of an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state, and hence, to a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”


However, Israel contends that construction within East Jerusalem does not violate its commitments, including the Road Map’s call for a settlement freeze. “Israel makes a clear distinction between the West Bank and Jerusalem,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “Israel has never made a commitment to limit our sovereignty in Jerusalem. Implementation of the first phase of the Road Map does not apply to Jerusalem.”


Regev’s comments were backed by Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who told Israel Radio that “We must come today and say, friends, the Jewish neighborhoods [in Jerusalem], including Har Homa, will remain under Israeli sovereignty, and the Arab neighborhoods will be the Palestinian capital, which they will call Jerusalem or whatever they want." Ramon added that such a clear statement would prevent the current tension: “Then we won’t get embroiled, as is happening now, in an uncalled-for and badly timed debate with the United States, at a time when we need its support.”


Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar takes the long view in his analysis of this diplomatic crisis, recalling that this is the second crisis involving Har Homa: “Har Homa Crisis No. 1 also broke out a short while after an American attempt to revive the peace process. In February, 1997, a few weeks after it signed the Hebron agreement, the Netanyahu government decided to erect 6,500 housing units on the southern border of East Jerusalem, about one-third of them on private land owned by Palestinians. In the Palestinian Authority (and the Israeli peace camp) this plan was seen as another step in a scheme to cut off their capital from the West Bank. Yasser Arafat threatened to declare the establishment of an independent state and the Palestinian Legislative Council announced a general strike in the territories.”


Eldar recalls that this “crisis was the focus of Arafat’s visit to the White House the following month. Clinton asked the Palestinian leader to be sensitive to Netanyahu’s ‘coalition pressures.’ Arafat explained that he, too, had troubles at home and begged the president to at least demand that Israel delay the implementation of the decision to establish the neighborhood. The president sent envoy Dennis Ross to Netanyahu with a letter in which he demanded that the establishment of the neighborhood be postponed. On the other side were the settlers and the activists from the right. They were flanked by then-mayor Olmert… who declared that Har Homa was ‘the most substantive test of the government’s ability to withstand pressure and demonstrate leadership.’ Work at the site began four days later. The U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, called U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk at 5:30 A.M. and instructed him to go to Netanyahu with a firm message stating that the United States saw the establishment of the new neighborhood as ‘a step that undermines everything that we are trying to do.’ The ambassador made his protest, the Arabs demonstrated, the UN Security Council met, the United States cast a veto - and Har Homa was taken off the international agenda. Arafat licked another wound and Hamas threw more salt on it.”


Eldar identifies this failure as a turning point in the Oslo peace process and wonders if Prime Minister Olmert will learn from those events: “The new neighborhood - or, from one point of view, the ‘settlement’ - which arose on the southern hills of Jerusalem became a mark of Cain on the forehead of the Oslo camp in Ramallah… Netanyahu identified the weakness of the international community and continued to nurture the settlers. The response today of spokesmen for the Olmert government gives rise to the fear that the Annapolis conference did not change the situation on the Israeli side… We have already forgotten that the prime minister agreed that everything would be open to negotiation, including Jerusalem. Is this the way to build a wall to fortify the status of PA President Mahmoud Abbas? And what will ‘the world’ do - all those people who were in attendance at Annapolis - if Olmert decides to hide behind ‘pressures from the coalition’ and approves the new construction?” (AP, 12/5/07; Ha’aretz 12/6, 12/7, 12/9 & 12/10/07; State.gov, 12/7/07; AFP, 12/8/07)


MOUNDS OF PAPER: Israel’s Defense Ministry has done little to enforce the law against violations of Israeli building codes in settlements, carrying out only 3% of demolition orders, according to a report released Tuesday by Israel’s Peace Now movement. The report is based on data provided to Peace Now by the Civil Administration, an Israeli government agency.


The report found that from 1997 to March 2007, at least 3449 demolition orders were issued for structures in the settlements, yet only 107 of them were demolished by the Civil Administration. Another 171 were taken down by the offenders, but many of these were simply moved illegally to another site in the West Bank. Included in the 3,449 reports of unauthorized construction are 1,934 caravans, 606 permanent buildings, 325 building starts, 133 roads and 451 other structures, including nine cellular antennas.


While there has been a great deal of media attention to unauthorized construction in proto-settlements known as outposts, most of the offenses found in the Civil Administration’s data took place within established settlements. Peace Now added that the numbers made available by the Civil Administration likely understate the problem of illegal construction within settlements because of an IDF decision in 1998 that effectively suspended inspections within established settlements.


The Peace Now report did not surprise attorney Talia Sasson, who was charged by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to examine outpost construction in the West Bank. She warned in her March 2005 report that thousands of demolition orders had not been acted upon. “All this information was given to the government two-and-a-half years ago, and it is a shame that until today nothing has been done,” Sasson told the Jerusalem Post. (PeaceNow.org.il, 12/4/07; Jerusalem Post, 12/4/07; Ha’aretz, 12/5/07)


SEEKING CHANGE AND REFORM IN PALESTINE: Hamas leader and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh renewed his call for dialogue with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ rival Fatah faction on Wednesday. “We believe it is necessary to immediately begin a non-conditional dialogue that will work to heal the Palestinian wounds,” Haniyeh told Reuters.


Also on Wednesday, a senior Abbas aide confirmed that Saudi Arabia had relayed a message from Hamas offering talks. The Palestinian president has repeatedly rebuffed these invitations, saying that Hamas must first give up control of the Gaza Strip. Abbas reportedly repeated that condition to the Saudis. Saudi Arabia also reportedly hosted a Hamas delegation headed by Khaled Mashal this weekend as part of an effort to resolve the Fatah-Hamas rift, as well as to reduce tensions between Syria and Saudi Arabia.


Saudi Arabia is not the only Arab power seeking to renew contacts between Fatah and Hamas. Egyptian Intelligence Director Omar Suleiman plans to host Hamas and Fatah representatives soon in Cairo, according to a report by the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on Sunday. Palestinian sources told the newspaper that Egypt was pressuring Hamas to take the first step towards Fatah as a way of renewing dialogue between the two parties. As part of a bridging proposal the Egyptians reportedly intend to ask Hamas to evacuate the security buildings they seized in their takeover of the Gaza Strip.


Saudi Arabia and Egypt may have been signaling to Abbas their displeasure with the continued lack of Hamas-Fatah dialogue by working with Hamas to allow Gazans to travel to Mecca for the Muslim pilgrimage known as the Hajj. PA leaders in Ramallah had invested extraordinary efforts to arrange with Israel for 2000 Gazans to travel through Israel and the West Bank. But the Egyptians allowed the pilgrims to travel through Egypt, where the Saudi embassy quickly issued visas, while the Saudi embassy in Jordan reportedly delayed all of the visa applications submitted by the Palestinian Authority (PA). “The Egyptians stabbed us in the back,” was the reaction of one senior PA official.


Ha’aretz columnist Avi Issacharoff wrote that “PA officials have difficulty understanding why Egypt and Saudi Arabia acted against Abbas’ interests in this way. Only a week earlier Abbas met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Now they assume that Cairo and Riyadh wanted to protest Abbas’ persistent refusal to resume the dialogue with Hamas. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have recently given Abbas hints that he should resume the talks, but a senior Palestinian official said that “all told it’s a continuation of the Egyptian game and the dual policy regarding Hamas.” Indeed, it seems that despite Egypt’s repeated assertions of its uncompromising war on Hamas and Gaza terror organizations, Cairo and especially Egyptian intelligence officials prefer to keep normal relations with Hamas, even at Abbas’ expense.”


There are also indications that Hamas is looking for a ceasefire. The London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported Saturday that Hamas is seeking a truce with Israel. According to the report, senior Hamas officials have been trying recently to persuade its military wing to stop firing Qassams at Israel to prevent a large-scale Israeli military strike on the Gaza Strip. The paper also reported that the Meshal met recently with the secretary-general of Islamic Jihad in Lebanon to discuss the matter. Islamic Jihad reportedly agreed in principle to join Hamas in a ceasefire only if Israel agrees that the ceasefire be mutual. Senior officials in Egypt reportedly offered to mediate the deal.


Palestinian sources told Ha’aretz that the intention was to unilaterally initiate a month-long ceasefire as a test. “Hamas has tried in the past to reach a cease-fire with Israel,” said Salah al-Bardawil, a Hamas parliamentarian, “but we reached a dead end in light of Israel’s actions and the killing of dozens of Palestinians.” Al-Bardawil added that without an Israeli pledge to observe the ceasefire, “there is no point.” (Ynet, 12/5/07; Nana10.co.il, 12/9/07; Ha’aretz, 12/7 & 12/9/07)


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