West Bank Settlement Blocs Blocking Israel's Progress Towards Stability

Israel has convinced the public that the blocs in the West Bank cannot be evacuated. In the name of peace, they must be.

Emil Salman

Once a concept becomes crystallized in the minds of the public, it’s very difficult to dislodge. Sometimes, its crystallization reflects a lack of thought; sometimes it is intentional; sometimes it is intellectual stagnation; and sometimes it’s all of these together. The fact that the State of Israel has no permanent borders greatly affects its conduct in the diplomatic arena with regard to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians. In the context of attempts to agree on Israel’s borders, the concept of the “settlement blocs” has crystallized into a fossil that no one has the strength to smash.

Over the past 20 years, this concept – which refers to adjacent Jewish settlements in the West Bank – has become an organizing principle in every proposed diplomatic plan. It has been present in all negotiations since then, and also in the unilateral measures Israel has taken.

The plan for the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria in the West Bank was the start of a process in which then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon aimed to evacuate most of the isolated settlements and concentrate Jewish settlement in “blocs.” Ehud Olmert, who succeeded him in 2006, tried to complete the process by means of the “convergence plan” – which, in essence, concentrated the Jewish settlements to the west of the West Bank separation barrier.

In 2008, within the framework of the Annapolis plan, Olmert continued the policy that then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak had begun in 2000 and proposed evacuating the isolated settlements, annexing the settlement blocs and in return giving the Palestinians appropriate territories from inside the Green Line (the pre-1967 borders of Israel). Recently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced accelerated construction work to complete the separation barrier and protect “the settlement blocs,” while opposition chairman MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) also called for separation on the basis of the “blocs.”

Peace-seeking nations aspire to establish their borders in a manner that ensures stability in relations with their neighbors; it’s pointless to establish borders that undermine this stability. Boundaries, as every parent knows, must be explicit, clear and logical, and must serve a long-term aim. This is not how Israel is conducting itself in relation to the “blocs,” and their effect on its future border and relations with a future Palestinian state.

If we examine the development of the concept of “the blocs,” we find that it clearly reflects the development of Israel’s short-term interests in the West Bank. These are driven by internal politics and completely ignore the interests of the Palestinian inhabitants and the implications for their ability to sustain a future state, as well as Israel’s own long-term interests and its ability to maintain the stability of a future border.

The frequent use of the term “blocs” has firmly established it as axiomatic – a fait accompli, an unmovable fact, as if it refers to areas that are impossible to evacuate. In this instance, it is not the experience that has shaped the consciousness, but rather the mind-set that is trying to shape the reality – with no security, economic, demographic or political logic.

For this reason, recent Netanyahu governments have continued to build most of the new housing units in isolated settlements. The aim is to then transform these into “blocs” that will establish themselves in the public discourse as spaces that absolutely must be preserved – even though most of the public is completely unfamiliar with them.

Birth of the blocs

The birth of the “bloc” concept came in the “five-fist plan” proposed by then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1968, which derived chiefly from the security need to control the central mountain ridge (Gav Hahar), which was densely populated by Palestinians. Dayan proposed establishing a “fist” – including an army base, town and agricultural communities – adjacent to each of the five major Palestinian cities that were the political and economic centers of the West Bank: Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron. The aim was to enable an immediate response to disturbances and terror actions; or, in the event of a broader security threat, to cut the West Bank into several parts (all the “fists” were located along Route 60, which runs along the length of the West Bank). Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s government rejected the plan.

In 1967, the Israeli government chose to implement the Allon Plan, the essence of which was Jewish settlement in “security zones” and not in “blocs.” The plan was initially implemented in the Jordan Valley, which emptied after its Arab inhabitants fled to Jordan, and later also around Jerusalem (the so-called “big triangle” of Jerusalem, which later became known as the “Jerusalem envelope”). The plan’s intention was primarily to provide security, but a second stage was aimed at annexing those areas and establishing a new Israeli border along the Jordan River.

A view shows Jordan Valley near the West Bank city of Jericho January 21, 2016.
Reuters

In September 1977, after the change of government that first brought Likud to power, Sharon – who was agriculture minister at the time – brought his new plan to Menachem Begin for approval. Like the Allon Plan, the “Sharon Plan” was aimed at strengthening security in the Jordan Valley and adding a “security zone” east of the Green Line. However, unlike the Alignment [Labor precursor] governments, what Sharon and Begin aspired to was that by the end of the process, the West Bank would be part of the State of Israel and under its sovereignty.

In October 1978, Matityahu Drobles – the then-head of the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division – prepared a detailed blueprint for implementing the Sharon Plan. He argued that “a strip of settlements at strategic sites enhances both internal and external security alike, as well as making concrete and realizing our rights to Eretz-Israel.” Therefore, he continued, the “contiguity must be made not only around settlements of the minorities [the Palestinians], but also in between them, in accordance with the settlement policy adopted in the Galilee and other parts of the country.”

To accomplish the complete butchering of the territorial contiguity of Palestinian locales and creating conditions for the annexation of the West Bank, no fewer than 22 blocs were stipulated, some of which even included settlements to be built to the west of the Green Line in order to make it disappear.

For a while, the Oslo Accords introduced obstacles for those disciples envisaging a “Greater Israel.” So, in 1997, the WZO’s Settlement Division launched a new plan called “Super Zones of Jewish Settlement.”

These zones replaced the idea of “the blocs,” under the diplomatic directive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wrote in his 1995 book “A Place Under the Sun,” “Autonomy under Israeli control is the only option for preventing those dangers inherent in the Oslo Accords.” The plan consisted of five areas of Jewish settlement, spread over about 60 percent of the area of the West Bank, and left the Palestinians only Areas A and B.

The negotiations on the permanent status solution in 1999-2000 (at Camp David and Taba); the route of the separation barrier built in 2002-2007; and the negotiations in Annapolis in 2008 – these were all influenced by the fear of evacuating Jewish settlements, a fear shaped by the presence of the “blocs,” their boundaries and numbers.

Clearly, it doesn’t matter if unilateral steps were taken or if proposals were put forward during negotiations – on both fronts over the past 20 years, the concept of “the blocs” has remained fossilized and no one is going to try to match it to the aim of achieving a stable border in any possible future agreement.

The aim of Barak, Sharon and Olmert, as well as Netanyahu, was to prevent the evacuation of a large number of Israelis who live beyond the Green Line. To this end, they drew up borders shaped by seven “blocs” and “fingers” that are mostly imaginary and lack any spatial logic or settlement consolidation. Instead, their entire logic is an attempt to create territorial contiguity for Israel. It goes without saying that these blocs completely ignore the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis.

So, for example, there’s the “Ariel finger,” which stretches 21 kilometers (13 miles) eastward from the Green Line; and its twin, the “Kedumin finger,” which is 23 kilometers long and includes Jewish settlements from separate and different regional councils. These cut Palestinian contiguity in Samaria into separate pieces.

Bloomberg

The settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim has been granted a “bloc” that increases its area by a factor of six, in order to sever the West Bank in two. This bloc includes the settlements of Kfar Adumim and Almon, which belong to the Mateh Binyamin regional council. And the inclusion of the small settlement of Beit Horon in the Givat Ze’ev “bloc” thwarts the possibility of the development of greater Ramallah westward.

A few years ago, Netanyahu said “My blocs aren’t the blocs of the left.’” And two years ago, he even added another couple of “blocs” – or two “fingers” – to Olmert and Barak’s seven blocs that sever Palestinian contiguity, this time in areas near Ramallah (Ofra-Beit El) and Hebron (Kiryat Arba).

Israel’s fixation with “the blocs” harms its own interests in the long term – the desire to have a stable border. Israel must define its border from the Palestinians in a permanent status agreement, or in the framework of a transition period, in a way that is different from the doctrine of the imaginary “blocs.” It must present a proposal for a new border that will prevent the creation of unnecessary points of friction and interference with the Palestinian social fabric, and will also ensure an open and “breathing” border that is essential to both sides. It must propose that the only Jewish settlements to be annexed are those that won’t hurt the configuration of Palestinian population areas and their lives, while creating a short and secure border.

For example, it can be decided that only “first line” settlements will be annexed to Israel – that is, only those settlements that are not separated by the Green Line from Palestinian locales or infrastructures.

A simple check shows this will allow Israel to leave about 75 percent of the Israelis living beyond the Green Line in their homes and under its sovereignty by means of territory exchanges amounting to some 3 percent, and shortening the length of the border that Israel proposed a number times in the past from about 760 kilometers to less than 450 kilometers (the Green Line is 313 kilometers long).

Even if this move means that Israel will have to face evacuating a larger number of Israelis, the price in the short term is negligible compared to the long-term ramifications of a border that is long, winding, damaging and full of friction points.

The concept of “the blocs” developed in accordance with the changing aims Israel hoped to achieve. But in the past 20 years, it has become ensconced in a way that damages the country. It must be understood that the concept is not “the Torah from Sinai.” More importantly, if Israel continues to develop its current definition and doesn’t update and shape it in accordance with the idea of two states, it will sow with its own hands the seeds of instability on the border with the Palestinians.

While the “bloc” doctrine could drag Israel into the familiar and endless cycle of violence from which it is desperately trying to extricate itself, the return to the drawing up of simple and clear “lines” will emphasize the Israeli interest. Only this will contribute to the stability of the border we so desire.