In Depth

After Gaza, Israel plays another card: land grabs

By taking land from Palestinians in the West Bank, Israel ensures long-term peace looks hopeless

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Slowly, inevitably, the world's gaze has shifted from Gaza. As ever, the news cycle has only so much time for misery.

But while Gaza slips from the news agenda, something just as sinister and detrimental to the future of both Israel and Palestine has been going on, attracting barely any international anger: land grabs in the West Bank.

A recent announcement that Israel had approved the conversion of nearly 400 hectares of land in the West Bank from private Palestinian land to Israeli state land was condemned by state officials and government ministers (including Israelis). Yet little is actually being done to stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from doing it again.

In the media, the story surfaced and then quickly sank again. The slow, purposeful dismantling of a people's future state is not as headline-grabbing or easy to communicate as war.

But as the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem noted, it is just one of several similar decisions recently made by the government in the area.

"The location of the lands that have been declared state land suggests an intention to create territorial contiguity between Israel and the nearby settlements ... in a manner that would effectively erase the Green Line in the area," said B'Tselem. 

In other words, Israel is establishing "facts on the ground" that will not be up for negotiation in any eventual peace process. And in doing so, it is totally ignoring the Green Line - the border that Israel is supposed to return to and respect according to every UN resolution and peace agreement on the issue since the war of 1967.

Yes, there have always been allowances for land swaps, but that does not give Israel a green light to unilaterally dissolve internationally recognised borders, and the fact remains that all settlements are illegal under international law.

Worryingly, this latest announcement is just the tip of the iceberg. Worse, it is symptomatic of an Israeli government that has absolutely zero long-term vision for even its own country, let alone the Palestinians.

Earlier this year, US President Barack Obama told Bloomberg: "We have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we've seen in a very long time."

And that's just recently.

Between 1999 and 2012, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, the total population of settlers in the West Bank practically doubled from 177,411 to 344,779. It is currently estimated at around 400,000, comprising around 15 per cent of the West Bank's 2.7 million population (excluding East Jerusalem, a whole other issue). They live in and around 125 government-sanctioned settlements and 100 or so smaller settlement outposts.

It's hard to understand the enormity of this without looking at a map showing just how Israeli settlements have mushroomed across the West Bank. I suggest this one, drawn up by B'Tselem.

It shows land that is controlled completely or partially by Palestinians in brown. Israeli-controlled land is in blue.

Has anyone who supports the two-state solution looked at this map recently? Israeli settlements - the splashes of blue - have turned the idea of a contiguous Palestinian state into a bad joke. The prospect of an Israeli government being willing to pull its citizens out of Ariel, for example, Israel's fourth–largest settlement which sits slap bang in the middle of the West Bank, is inconceivable.

Clearly, this is a living nightmare for the Palestinians: unless there is a serious sea-change in Israeli politics, any hope of a real future state will soon be dead.

It's hardly good news for Israelis, either. As has often been pointed out, if the two-state solution is no longer viable, then the only choice will be some sort of system of apartheid, with Israelis and Palestinians segregated, just as whites and blacks once were in South Africa.

The death and destruction in Gaza deserves our attention, but so too does this cancer eating away at the only long-term peace agreement currently acceptable to Israelis and Palestinians. For the sake of both peoples, the issue deserves far more action than "strongly worded" condemnations.

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