Israel Pulse

Gantz, peace and the West Bank landscape

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Article Summary
Seeking regional peace, as presidential candidate Benny Gantz has pledged to do, will require revisiting not only the separation barrier but other Israeli alterations to the West Bank landscape in efforts to prime it for annexation.

Benny Gantz, chair of the new Israel Resilience party, delivered his maiden speech on Jan. 29 and on the occasion avoided uttering “Palestinian state,” a term the political right has turned into a catchphrase for left-wing sympathies verging on treason. Also notably, the new candidate, vying to replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, chose to use the term “separation fence” rather than “security fence,” the official designation of the barrier. He pledged to “maintain security in the entire Land of Israel,” but added, “We will not allow the millions of Palestinians living beyond the separation fence to endanger our security and our identity as a Jewish state.”

The choice of words regarding the barrier is not semantic quibbling. Gantz, a former military chief of staff, obviously knows the official name of the structure, a combination of fencing and wall that Israel began building in 2002 on parts of the occupied West Bank and on its own territory around it. In fact, authorities have been so determined to ensure the use of the official terminology to brand the barrier's purpose that in 2009 the Foreign Ministry forced the national airline, El Al, to stop distributing maps to passengers until it replaced the term “separation wall” with “security fence.”

The demarcation between Israel and the 2.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank is one of the major political challenges that would confront a center-left government if Gantz manages to oust Netanyahu in the April 9 elections. The barrier that such a government would inherit could constitute a solution for separating Israelis from Palestinians, but its route would be a major diplomatic headache.

At present, most of the fence — 85%, constituting the segments already completed and those planneddeviates from Israel’s 1967 borders because its 442-mile route is twice the length of the Green Line delineating Israel’s pre-1967 border. As a result, the barrier deprives Palestinians of 9.4% of West Bank land, including land Israel annexed 51 years ago to Jerusalem's municipal boundaries.

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A government striving for regional peace, like the one Gantz has pledged to lead, would have to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians based on the 1967 borders, on annexation of the West Bank settlement blocs and on land swaps. That would mean dismantling significant parts of the barrier and rebuilding them along the new border.

In addition to confronting the intrusive route of the barrier, the new government would also find roads built in recent years across the West Bank as annexation measures disguised as responding to “security needs.” One such example is a road northeast of Jerusalem between Hizme and al-Zaim that opened this month with separate sections for Israeli traffic and for Palestinian traffic.

As noted by Shaul Arieli, a researcher focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the road was designed to lead to Mevaseret Adumim, a new neighborhood in the contested West Bank area known as E1, situated between the Maale Adumin settlement and East Jerusalem. The planned neighborhood is part of a road map to create a contiguous Jewish presence between Jerusalem and the Maale Adumim, a vast area east of Jerusalem that would eventually be annexed to the city. The new construction plan is controversial, because it will physically separate the West Bank and its Palestinian population from East Jerusalem.

What would a government under Gantz do with the tens of thousands of Palestinians living in that area of the security fence, given that the coalition would likely include right-wing Knesset representatives, for instance former Llikud minister Moshe Ya’alon, former government secretary Zvi Hauser and former Netanyahu communication adviser Yoaz Hendel? A quick glance at the map clearly indicates that annexation of the area would thwart plans for a Palestinian state by instead creating Bantustan-style Palestinian enclaves. In other words, annexing that area would cut through any future Palestinian state, fracturing the territory into small, confined regions.

South of E1 near Bethlehem, members of the new government would find another annexation initiative, designated as area E2, launched under the guise of plans to widen Route 60. On Dec. 26, the state informed the Supreme Court that it had allocated 1,182 dunams of land (292 acres) for Givat Ha-Etam, a new settlement with 2,500 housing units.

The Palestinian Authority claims in “Besieging Bethlehem,” a report issued this month, that Israel — having cutting off the Palestinian city of Bethlehem from Jerusalem with a string of settlements — is now planning to cut Bethlehem off from Hebron and from the villages west of the town. The plan threatens land belonging to the Palestinian towns and villages of Beit Jala, al-Khader and Massara. In addition, environmental groups warn that it would damage part of Battir, a Palestinian village recognized by UNESCO in 2014 as a World Heritage Site. Archaeological finds around the village have been dated to the Middle Bronze Age and the Iron Age, and remnants of a 7th-century town from the early Arab period have been found there. Battir has been an important site for vegetable cultivation since the 12th century.

How will Gantz respond to UNESCO’s warning that construction of the separation barrier in Battir as currently planned could cause irreparable damage to stone terraces dating back thousands of years and rob Palestinian farmers of the fields and orchards nurtured by a traditional subterranean watering system? Will the new government boycott UNESCO and thumb its nose at its decisions like the current government has done? Will Gantz sit on the fence while Israeli contractors build a cement wall on ancient stone terraces? 

Like every politician eyeing the political center, Gantz could not avoid pledging to keep Jerusalem “unified for eternity.” The separation fence, however — the one he cited as the buffer between Israel and millions of Palestinians — runs deep into the heart of “unified Jerusalem.” Misleading voters with slogans about a united Jerusalem will not address the problem of sewage flowing through the streets of the Shuafat refugee camp, which Israel annexed to Jerusalem, and will not ease the neglect in the annexed East Jerusalem neighborhood of Walaja.

A responsible and reasonably decent government will have to decide, sooner rather than later, how to deal with the 100,000-150,000 Palestinians from East Jerusalem who hold Israeli ID cards but are separated from the city by the barrier. The mystery of their exact number is characteristic of their isolation and neglect.

New parties, like Israel Resilience, can hold out the promise of “change.” Such change, however, will require a fundamental reassessment of the geopolitical reality created by successive Israeli governments in the occupied territories by erecting walls, building roads for Israelis only and expropriating Palestinians' land. To prevent Israel from plunging into the abyss of occupation and moral decline on the verge of which it now teeters, the wheel must be turned. Gantz, in his speech, failed to indicate whether he has the strength or will to do so.

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Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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