While Israeli settlements currently constitute less than two percent of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, they control a total of 41.9 percent of the territory, according to a report released by Israel's most important human rights organization Monday.
The group, B'Tselem, or the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, charged that Israeli authorities have created a "regime of separation based on discrimination," in which they apply two different systems of law in the same area, basing the rights of individuals there on their nationality.
"This regime is the only one of its kind in the world, and is reminiscent of the distasteful regimes of the past, such as the Apartheid regime in South Africa," according to the report, entitled 'Land Grab: Israel's Settlement Policy in the West Bank.'
Its publication comes at a critical moment in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Recent invasions by Israeli military forces in the West Bank in retaliation for suicide bombings have been widely denounced by the international community as major setbacks to the Oslo peace process, which was based on the principle that Israel would eventually vacate most of the settlements in exchange for a permanent peace agreement with the Palestine National Authority headed by Yasser Arafat.
The polarization caused by the conflict, the latest and most violent phase in the so-called al-Aqsa intifada that began in September, 2000, has hardened the position of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who, while nominally in favor of the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, has more recently vowed not to give up any Israeli settlements.
On the other hand, a poll taken just last week by the Dahaf Institute in Israel found that 59 percent of Israelis believe that a withdrawal that includes evacuating most of the settlements will lead to a renewal of the peace process, and 72 percent said it would also improve Israel's battered international standing.
The poll was released in advance of the biggest peace demonstration in Israel since the latest intifada began. Between 50,000 and 60,000 Israelis turned out in Tel Aviv this past weekend in support of a Saudi peace plan which calls for Israel to dismantle the settlements and withdraw fully from the occupied territories in return for full peace with all of its Arab neighbors.
B'Tselem's report charges that Israel's settlement policy--that has resulted in some 380,000 Israeli citizens living in the West Bank--violates international humanitarian law which bans an occupying power from transferring its citizens into occupied territory and from making any permanent changes in occupied areas unless they are undertaken for the benefit of the local population or for urgent military needs.
"Israel's settlement policy violates these regulations," the report concludes, noting that Israel has used the settlements to "justify numerous violations of the Palestinians' human rights, such as the right to housing, to earn a livelihood, and the right to freedom of movement."
"The drastic change that Israel has made in the map on the West Bank prevents any real possibility for the establishment of an independent, viable Palestinian state as part of the Palestinians' right to self-determination," according to the report, which is particularly critical of what it calls "the manipulative use of legal tools in order to give the settlement enterprise an impression of legality."
Thus, when Jordanian legislation served Israel's goals, it applied Jordanian law, arguing that international law obliges it to respect the legislation in effect before occupation on the West Bank of the Jordan River. On the other hand, where Jordanian legislation interfered with Israel's plans, it was changed through military legislation.
B'Tselem called such practices "cynical and biased," as well as violations of international conventions to which Israel is itself a party.
To redress these injustices, the report called for an immediate halt to the construction of new settlements and building within settlements; a freeze on the planning and construction of new bypass roads and the expropriation of land for those purposes; a return to the Palestinian communities of all undeveloped areas within the municipal boundaries of the settlements; and the abolition of special planning committees in the settlements which are used to extend their control.
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