Today was a historical day. The government of Netanyahu, the most extreme right wing government we have had in years, announced a total freeze of new construction in the settlements. It is hard to believe, but at least in terms of words and declarations, there is a settlement freeze; in terms of deeds - it is too early to know.
What is in the moratorium?
- No new construction starts in the settlements (including construction that was approved in the past).
- No new steps to plan, prepare, and authorize future settlement construction.
- No new construction of settlement-related infrastructure.
What is not included in the moratorium?
- Construction in East Jerusalem - the Israeli government is not taking upon itself to stop the construction in the Israeli neighborhoods built on lands East of the Green Line, that were unilaterally annexed to the Jerusalem municipality, and is not obliged to prevent further expansion and take over of properties and lands in the Palestinian neighborhoods around to Old City.
- Construction that was already started - the Israeli government is not taking upon itself to stop the construction of units where construction has already begun. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics there are today aprox. 2,895 housing units under construction in the settlements, the construction of which will probably be completed in a year or two.
- Public Buildings - a number of specified public building projects (e.g. schools and synagogues) and specified public infrastructure projects.
What is still unclear?
- By what mechanism Israel will define what constitutes a building where construction has started. For instance, Peace Now revealed that settlers had started the groundworks for 800 buildings in anticipation of an announcement like this, most of them are not in the stage of laying foundations yet. Will work on these be frozen as a part of the moratorium?
- To what extent will Israel restrain provocative building in East Jerusalem. The fallout from the recent announcement of plans to expand Gilo indicates just how seriously these projects are seen.
On the one hand, this is a historical declaration, if truly implemented. But on the other hand, it is only a partial freeze, far from satisfactory. I think that the most important thing missing from the declaration is the ability to convince us, Israelis and Palestinians, that it will truly be fulfilled. We have been hearing for years the Israeli leaders promising to continue the peace process (remember the government of Netanyahu in 1996 deciding not to build new settlements?), to freeze the construction in the settlements (remember Sharon government accepting the Roadmap?) and to evacuate the outposts (remember Olmert in Annapolis?). Years of Israeli declarations and promises to stop settlement activity since the Oslo accord till today did not bring any actual result: in 1993, at the eve of the Oslo process, there were 116,000 settlers in the West Bank. Today there are more than 300,000 (not including East Jerusalem). The Palestinians have many good reasons to suspect that this is yet another empty declaration like those we heard in the past.
Especially when it is Netanyahu, that only last week allowed, out loud, the promotion of the plan to build 900 new housing units in East Jerusalem, and that in September, at the eve of the summit with Abbas and Obama at the UN in New York, announced the approval of 455 new housing units in the settlements and torpedoed any progress. So the words are not enough, we need also the deeds.
Netanyahu is putting himself today to a test. In the coming weeks we will be able to see if he is sincerely ready to go to the final status negotiations, and if he is keeping his promise to freeze the settlement activity. The Settlement Watch Team of Peace Now, like any other organizations and people, will be able to go out to the field and see if there are new construction starts or if there aren't. However, if the negotiations on the final status will not start soon, the settlement freeze will not be relevant any more, and Netanyahu can win the test and say: "I did my part but the Palestinians refused."
The lack of faith and confidence between the Israelis and Palestinians is deep and hard, but nevertheless, the real interest of both sides is to solve the conflict and live in peace side by side in two states for two peoples. Therefore, even when it's very hard to believe it, and the promise to freeze the settlements is partial and unsatisfactory, we must keep trying to move forward towards peace, and to make sure that if there is a chance to make this historical declaration into reality, we must not miss it.