Building 'Bantustans' in the West Bank

by Charmaine Seitz

In These Times, August 2002


Ramallah, the West Bank - Ramallah is eerily quiet. In the mornings, Palestinians wake and listen for traffic, a sign that the Israeli military has lifted its injunction against going outside. Sometimes, the traffic is wrong and gunshots ring out. Then: silence once more.

The despair is palpable. "It is very bad," says Rima Tarazi of the General Union of Palestinian Women. "If you are going to ask me now what I see for the next year, l don't know. l can't tell you anything."

But what Palestinians express as hopelessness, the Israeli government sees as a big victory. Armed Palestinian attacks have slowed-but not ceased-as the Israeli army is once again patrolling Palestinian towns. What is rarely talked about is the accompanying loss: prospects for viable Palestinian statehood.

"I think Israel believes that it has defeated the Palestinians," says Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. "It is finished. The war is over. What that means then is that Israel doesn't have to negotiate anymore with the Palestinians. Israel is now free to pretty much impose whatever it wants."

In recent weeks, walls have been built, plans approved and settlements institutionalized that literally reshape the West Bank. In the northern half of the West Bank, construction is well underway on a fence dividing Israel proper from the areas it occupied in 1967. Or almost. Palestinians say that the 110-kilometer fence, first approved in 2001, actually dips beyond the 1967 borders, completing the de facto annexation of 69 square kilometers of the West Bank, including 11 villages of some 40,000 Palestinians. Another 2,500 acres of West Bank land has been confiscated from Palestinian landowners for the building of a second wall stretching north from southern Tulkarem.

Amid the recent violence, the Israeli government has approved settlement plans previously considered too controversial. The final door has nearly closed on Palestinian access to East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1980. In June, Israel's zoning commission approved the Eastern Gate plan, a settlement complex that cartographer Jan de Jong predicted in 1998 would "determine the chances of East Jerusalem forever." The new scheme and accompanying roads would make it possible for Israel to add 800,000 Israeli settlers to the area, while preventing Palestinian growth in the city. Currently, there are some 200,000 Israelis in East Jerusalem settlements, competing with 200,000 Palestinians.

While Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer made world headlines last month for dismantling several outposts put up by Israeli settlers in the West Bank without government approval, settlement watchdog groups say the move was just a smokescreen. The 90 outposts were reduced by 11, but the rest gained de facto government support. It is no accident that these sparsely manned outposts lay just on the seams of Palestinian populated areas. "What is actually happening is a slow process of legitimizing these settlements," says Dror Etkes of Peace Now.

The northern West Bank will be split from the Ramallah area by an extensive bloc of settlements connected to Israel. The Ramallah area will then be cut off from the southern West Bank by an enlarged Jerusalem controlled by Israel. Another small canton will be made up of Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem, while walled Gaza remains largely intact. "That will be the independent state," Halper predicts of Gaza. "And then the Palestinians in the other four cantons will either get autonomy, or-if there is a lot of pressure-Israel will give them Palestinian citizenship. It doesn't really matter because Israel has encircled them and still has control."

The new map looks uncannily like a 1997 "peace plan" fronted by Sharon as a cabinet minister. At the time, the idea of annexing 65 percent of the West Bank and 30 percent of the Palestinians living there was laughed at. But Israelis today are convinced that by turning down the proposals offered at Camp David before the current hostilities, Palestinians rejected peace. "There is an agreement [in this Israeli government] that there should be a Bantustan," Halper says. "The Israelis don't use the word Bantustan, but that is what it is."

Halper is not the only one to draw comparisons with apartheid. "I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land," Archbishop Desmond Tutu told a Boston conference in April. "It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa."

For their part, Palestinians view this new map with an uncharacteristic pessimism. There seems to be little that Palestinians can do to halt the process underway in the West Bank. "Maybe this is my idealism speaking," Halper persists hopefully, "but it is hard for me to believe that in the 21st century, in the light of day, with CNN and everything else, a new apartheid situation could actually emerge."

Still, even he admits that he has no idea what might stop it.

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