Houses can be seen at the Jewish West Bank settlement of Maale Efrayim in the Jordan Valley.
Acting under guidelines from the senior political echelon, the IDF has conferred the status of “state land” on Gva’ot, 400 hectares (a little under 1,000 acres) located just over the Green Line west of Gush Etzion.
International condemnation was not long in coming.
The US, England and France all urged Israel to reverse its decision, calling it counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Rather than the actual decision, it is the timing of the move that has aroused much ire, both in Israel and abroad. The decision to build in the area should not arouse tremendous controversy. After all, this is land located adjacent to the Etzion bloc, which is expected to remain a part of Israel in any future two-state solution reached with the Palestinians.
Jewish settlements in the area pre-date the establishment of the State of Israel. Migdal Eder was founded in 1927 by a group of religious Yemenite Jews. During the Arab uprising of 1929, Migdal Eder was attacked and destroyed. Gush Etzion is best known for the core of settlements – Kfar Etzion, Masu’ot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim, and Revadim – created in the 1940s on tracts of land purchased by Jews in the early 1920s. The massacre of 127 Jewish inhabitants of Kfar Etzion on May 13, 1948 at the hands of the Arab Legion and local villagers was one of the most traumatic incidents in the War of Independence.
The return of Jews to the area after the Six Day War was fitting justice. It also strengthened Israel’s longstanding claim that the West Bank was not “occupied” by the Jews after 1967. The Palestinian leadership rejected the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which would have given it control over Gush Etzion. During the 19 years during which Jordan seized control of the area and cleansed it of Jews, there was no talk of the creation of a Palestinian state. Indeed, the continued presence of Jews in Gush Etzion at the time of the partition plan did not prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. This is true today as well.
Even former opposition leader MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor), who opposed the timing of the decision, nevertheless conceded that in principle settlements in the Gush Etzion bloc enjoy a consensus among Israelis and do not endanger a two-state solution.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who headed the Israeli negotiating team with the Palestinian Authority until talks broke down in April, took a similar tack, voicing opposition to the timing of the decision without questioning the legitimacy of building Jewish settlement there.
“Now, when we need to mobilize the world to prevent processes against Israel and work together with moderate forces, anything that could deflect attention on to us and cause criticism of us harms those things we are trying to achieve,” she said.
The timing was indeed problematic, though we wonder if there is ever a convenient time to announce intentions of Jewish building anywhere beyond the Green Line, even in consensus Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
More problematic, however, is presenting the new building project as “revenge” for the brutal kidnapping and murder of Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19.
Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Zeev Elkin, for instance, declared that the timing of the building plans was a direct response to the murders.
The decision to build or not to build in the West Bank should not be motivated by a desire for revenge. More rational considerations should govern decision-making, such as the need to accommodate natural growth and the importance of keeping a two-state solution viable if and when the Palestinians finally commit themselves to a peace process.
But the timing of the Gva’ot announcement is unfortunate.
Soon after Operation Protective Shield, with Hamas seriously damaged, Israel should be making every effort to reach out to the Palestinian Authority, which exercised restraint during the conflict and has blamed Hamas for prolonging the fighting. There needs to be a renewed negotiating effort aimed at reaching a two-state arrangement and beginning the long-overdue process of Palestinian state-building. Decisions like possible building in Gva’ot do not need to bring that process to a halt, but they do cause unnecessary controversy and strife during a time when bridges need to be built. If Palestinians are truly sincere about peace, the existence of Jews in their midst should not deter them from what should be their real goal – Palestinian statehood. This was true in 1947 and it remains true today.
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