The freeze idea was born at a time when settlement expansion was in its infancy. Israel had occupied the West Bank for hardly a decade, and with the exception of East Jerusalem, settlements claimed only small numbers of inhabitants; most had yet to shed an air of impermanence. There were less than 5,000 Israelis living in less than 30 West Bank settlements. The settler population in East Jerusalem numbered 50,000. Administration of all settlement-related activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was largely controlled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the integration of settlements and settlers into the routine bureaucratic life of Israel’s civilian ministries was still some years off. In this era, marked by the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, there was a legitimate basis to view a cessation of settlement as a confidence-building measure.
In a letter to President Jimmy Carter delivered after the September 1977 Camp David summit, Begin offered a three month moratorium on establishing new settlements rather than the longer moratorium preferred by Washington. Restrictions on the expansion of existing settlements had been dropped at Israel’s insistence. On the face of it, Begin’s agreement to halt new settlement creation for even three months was a bold and surprising concession. Yet, and not for the last time, Israel’s commitment to a moratorium did not constrain settlement but rather established categories of expansion implicitly endorsed by Washington. The temporary moratorium on new settlements notwithstanding, the Begin government continued to “thicken” and “strengthen” settlements, at times establishing new sites kilometers away from existing colonies during the three month period. Carter administration officials were frustrated by Israel’s actions, but acquiesced.
In contrast to Begin’s agreement to the partial, temporary, and ineffective restrictions on Israeli settlement actions in the West Bank and Gaza—East Jerusalem was excluded implicitly—the peace treaty with Egypt signified a strategic Israeli decision to trade territory for new security mechanisms that required Israel’s evacuation of all settlements in territory returned to Egyptian sovereignty. Only in the context of an Israeli decision to withdraw from Egyptian territory was it possible for Israel, through its complete evacuation of the Sinai Peninsula, to adopt and enforce an effective halt to settlement expansion. Indeed Israeli settlement activity in Sinai increased in the months before evacuation until the IDF forcibly removed the Sinai settlers. Settlement activity undertaken within the strategic context of imminent evacuation proved to be irrelevant.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
A review from an anti-settlement group: