Monday, July 27, 2009

Under Our Radar: West Bank settlements grow, while Iraq unravels

From this morning's Haaretz, the unsettling report (which BTW went unnoted in either the Washington Post or NY Times) that the population of the West Bank settlements has now surpassed 300,000. The NYT does run an interesting piece by Ethan Bronner (whose impartiality has been questioned by Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss on several occasions) with the chirpy headline, "In 2 West Bank Settlements, Sign of Hope for a Deal." But the article itself is hardly reassuring. Bronner went to two haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) settlements and found those he interviewed to be largely "pragmatic," treasuring life above everything else - but the headline hints not at all at the harder line he also encountered, and which is featured front and center in what ought to be a must-read for US policy makers: the new report from the International Crisis Group, "Israel’s Religious Right and the Question of Settlements" . They mince no words:

The effort to settle in the occupied territories once was led by secular Zionists. No more. Today, the settlement issue is being quickly transformed by the shifting dynamics of the religious right. Tens of thousands of national-religious Jews populate the settlements; they enjoy political, logistical and other forms of support from hundreds of thousands inside Israel proper. In addition, an equal if not larger number of ultra-orthodox who initially shared little of the national-religious outlook, gradually have been gravitating toward their view; many among them are now settlers. Together, the national-religious and ultra-orthodox carry weight far in excess of their numbers. They occupy key positions in the military, the government and the education and legal sectors, as well as various layers of the bureaucracy. They help shape decision-making and provide a support base for religious militants, thereby strengthening the struggle against future territorial withdrawals from both within and without state institutions.

The religious right believes it has time on its side. Its two principal camps – the national-religious and ultra-orthodox – boast the country’s highest birth rates. They have doubled their population in West Bank settlements in a decade. They are rising up military ranks. Their political parties traditionally play important roles within ruling government coalitions. Many – in the leadership and among the grassroots – are preparing the ground for the next battle over settlements and territorial withdrawal, animated by a deeply rooted conviction in the rightness of their cause. Treating every confrontation – however insignificant the apparent stake – as a test of wills, religious militants have responded to the demolition of plyboard huts with revenge strikes on Palestinians, stoning their cars, burning their crops, cutting their trees and occasionally opening fire. Mainstream religious leaders for the most part appear powerless to condemn, let alone tamp down the violence.

In the run-up to the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, some analysts and even a few decision-makers predicted violent clashes and hard fought evacuations. They were mistaken. Disengagement proceeded remarkably peacefully and smoothly. But it would be wrong to veer to the other extreme and assume that what happened in Gaza will be replicated in the West Bank. There are differences in numbers, background and militancy of the respective settler populations. Plus, Gaza taught lessons to all sides, the government but also the militants. Since then, the latter have been preparing for the next round. They are banking on their support within state institutions to discourage the government from taking action and on their own rank and file to ensure that every attempt to evict an outpost or destroy a structure comes at a heavy price. For that reason, some security officials worry that unrest could spread, with violence not only between Israeli Jews and Palestinians but also among Jews; they also fear discord in military ranks that could complicate action.

Some steps are long overdue. Having long given succour to the settlement enterprise, the state needs to rein it in; while it at times has acted against the excesses of individual religious militants, it too often has shown excessive lenience toward anti-Palestinian violence or hateful incitement, especially with a religious content. Rabbis who call on soldiers to defy army orders to remove settlements or who justify violence in many cases continue to receive state salaries; religious colleges with a record of militancy continue to operate without oversight or regulation; inflammatory material finds its way on to army bases. All this should stop. Judicial and law enforcement agencies need to investigate and prosecute cases of anti-Palestinian violence and hate crimes. The army should show the same determination in protecting non-Jewish as it does Jewish civilians in the West Bank.

But Israel’s religious right has deep roots, and even its most militant expression cannot be dealt with exclusively through confrontation, however effective U.S. pressure might be. Along with necessary firmness, there are other ways to defuse the problem:

  • The government could help pass an early evacuation compensation law, providing for advantageous financial terms to those settlers who agree to move, thereby isolating their more hardline members.
  • Unlike what happened with the Gaza disengagement, the government could start early planning for settler relocation by building alternative homes inside Israel proper.
  • While some settlers will be determined no matter what to remain on what they consider their Biblical land, here, too, ideas are worth exploring. In negotiations with Palestinians, Israel could examine whether and how settlers choosing to remain might live under Palestinian rule.
  • Israel’s religious parties should be made to feel part of the diplomatic process, rather than as its mere spectators or even its targets; in this spirit, third parties such as the U.S. should be reaching out to them.

The current mix of neither strict law enforcement nor effective outreach is a recipe for greater difficulties ahead. To ignore the reality and weight of Israel’s religious right would hamper an already uncertain path to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and, should an agreement be reached, toward a lasting and sustainable peace.

Not helpful in getting out both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian story, on the other hand, are your friendly administrators at Facebook, who (the UPI reports) have taken down a Facebook page (with 10,000 fans) dedicated to the Hamas leader in embattled Gaza, Ismail Haniya. When questioned, the administrators refused comment, but the report notes that they'd been coming under fire from pro-Israel types.

Meanwhile, in Iraq . . . Thomas Ricks adds another installment to his "Iraq: the Unraveling" series:

Over the weekend an Iraqi commander tried to detain U.S. troops after they chased into a neighborhood some people who shot at their convoy, The Washington Post reported. They reportedly killed three Iraqis and wounded another four in doing so. Prime Minister Maliki says the Iraq commander was "out of line." But then Saturday is probably one of his days to be nice to the evil American occupiers who protect him.

Maliki also is shocked -- shocked -- that the U.S. government talked secretly to insurgent leaders. Everyone, don't tell the prime minister about the Sons of Iraq program, either!

Also, more bad news in al Anbar -- a big bomb went off in Fallujah, as well as a smaller one near the headquarters of the Iraqi Islamic Party, and one at a funeral between Ramadi and Fallujah. [JR: see also the NYT report here.] And a bunch of police were shot up in Abu Ghraib. Is the Anbar Sawha going off the reservation? I still don't understand what is happening out there, and have been surprised by the lack of news coverage of it. It makes me wonder if in budget cutbacks, news bureaus let go their stringers in Anbar. If so, what a sad turn for the news business. Suppose they gave a war and nobody covered it.

Well, the Afghans are giving an election, and since the war there is now the media's flavor of the month, it's worth noting that the Karzai government has struck a truce with the Taliban in a remote part of the country. (The Taliban deny it.) No comments reported from General McChrystal about that, but when the Pakistan government struck a deal with the Pakistani Taliban a few months ago, the US came down pretty hard on the Zardari government.

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