Far from relaxing its economic blockade on Gaza as its negotiators sit across the table from their Palestinian counterparts in the latest attempt at peace talks, Israel has tightened the screw – reimposing a ban, lifted just a month ago, on the transfer of construction materials into the occupied territory.
It took the decision last week after discovering a 1.5 mile (2.4km) tunnel running from Gaza into Israel. The ban on building materials had existed for years on the grounds that Israel thought the materials would be used for building what they called “terror tunnels” from Gaza into Israel from which to launch attacks. It had been finally lifted as part of the gradual easing of the economic blockade on Gaza. Now it is back.
Meanwhile talks continue between the two sides, but very little progress has been achieved since late July over 10 weeks of negotiations which have seen Palestinian, Israeli and US negotiators discuss the release of Palestinian prisoners and the construction of settlements in the West Bank.
Prisoner release opens old wounds
Action on both counts has been taken, but has failed to generate positive progress: the staggered release of 104 Palestinians has been due since the 1999 Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum, and for many prisoners their incarceration predates the 1993 Oslo Accords. On August 13, 26 prisoners were released, but 78 remain in jail, with the second group scheduled for release on October 29. This group includes many men serving lengthy jail sentences for murder.
The announcement of their release in August brought protests by the families of the victims outside Israel’s Supreme Court, after petitions calling for continued imprisonment were rejected.
The high profile nature of the prisoners and their actions marked a new phase of Israeli concession, but for some the “blood on the hands” of the prisoners contradicts the purpose of the talks: to promote peace and trust among Israelis and Palestinians, as well as with their respective governments.
Just as the release of the prisoners has raised hackles on the Israeli side of the negotiations, the plans to build a further 1,187 settlement homes in the West Bank simply hinders matters for the Palestinians. The reluctance to address the issue in a meaningful manner has undermined the negotiations – it also perpetuates conflict at a grassroots level.
Unsettled by new construction
The continuing expansion of settlements effectively dooms peace negotiations to yet another failed attempt. There are four issues in play when settlements are expanded: first is, of course, the initial illegal seizure of land from those who may have been living in the area for generations. Next is security, which affects both sides and then there is the access to resources. Finally there is the complicity of the military and the Israeli government in the expansion of the settlements and the settler violence.
The security dimension concerns Palestinians and Israelis alike: in September two Israelis and one Palestinian were killed, while earlier this month a nine-year-old girl was shot as she played outside her home in the West Bank settlement of Psagot.
One of the murders in September, in particular, resonated with the Israeli public due to its brutality and to the seeming betrayal, by the alleged murderer, of what seems to have been a false bond of trust with his victim.
Tomer Hazan was killed after he travelled to a West Bank village with Nidal Amar, a co-worker at an Israeli restaurant where Hazan, a sergeant in the Israeli Air Force, worked part-time. His body was thrown down a well and Amar, who was arrested the following day, reportedly told police he had hoped to trade Hazan’s body for the release of his brother, a member of the Fatah Tanzim terror group, who has been serving time in an Israeli jail since 2003.
One of the things that has resonated with Israelis about this story is the number of attempts to abduct Israeli soldiers – 27 between January and June this year, all of which were foiled.
More bricks in the wall
Behind the headlines, the story of Hazan and Amar has deeper implications for relations in the region: walled off by the security fence, Palestinians become the unknown. They are dehumanised by the retelling of these and similar events. And the absence of dialogue on a grass-roots level consolidates in the minds of the Israeli population the notion of the feared Other. It serves as a justification for aggression enacted at checkpoints and in cities, such as Hebron and Al-Khalil. The result on both sides is frustration, fear and uncertainty – particularly when hostility occurs with limited official censure.
Another major handicap to the chances of any fruitful results from talks is the ongoing transformation of areas inhabited by civilians into firing zones, such as Firing Zone 918.
According to a report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) published in August 2012, 18% of the West Bank has been designated as a closed military training zone.
Once it is cleared, Firing Zone 918 will encompass 30,000 acres of what was private and agricultural land in the South Hebron Hills. Some 1,300 Palestinians will be displaced and 12 villages destroyed. On September 2, judges at the Israeli High Court proposed mediation between the Israeli government and the Palestinian lawyers but military drills have continued unabated and a final decision is still pending.
Meanwhile those not displaced by the firing zone suffer daily from dwindling and contaminated water supplies as their cisterns are sabotaged, contaminated or taken. While these fundamental issues of human rights remain unaddressed, the peace talks are doomed to be just two sides going through empty motions.
The prospect for successful talks will not only rely on enhanced and respectful dialogue between the two sets of leaders, but on a more proactive approach on the ground. Instead, the green light for the construction of new settlements represents a red light for peace.
The seeming inability to authorities to act in an even-handed manner, the inability of so many residents in the Occupied Territories to gain equal access to food, water, shelter and the protection of their human rights must be addressed as a matter of urgency – or the peace talks will remain just that – talks.