Tuesday, July 7, 2009

West Bank "Natural Growth" And The Uses Of Ambiguity

The Israeli government's dispute with the Obama administration is over whether to allow for the "natural growth" of families in West Bank settlements. The Forward reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to use the words "natural growth," preferring to speak about facilitating "normal life." He reflects the ambiguity remarked upon by U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell, who said about "natural growth" that "there are almost as many definitions as there are people speaking." 

Givat Ha'eytam exemplifies this vagueness; despite the fact that it is remote from the settlement of Efrat, it is considered within its municipal boundaries (photo from The Forward above shows the view from Givat Ha'eytam to Efrat in the distance):

Givat Ha’eytam, a lonely hill in the Israeli occupied West Bank, seems like anything but a natural part of the bustling 8,000-person Jewish settlement of Efrat. ...Nevertheless, the Israeli policy that is being widely described as “natural growth” could permit developing Givat Ha’eytam as an extension of Efrat. ...Removed though it is from Efrat, building on Givat Ha’eytam would be regarded by Israel as simply expanding Efrat...rather than creating a new settlement. By prior planning, Givat Ha’eytam falls within Efrat’s municipal boundaries.

Another example of a settlement whose municipal boundaries outdistance its population is Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem:

Efrat is not alone among the 120 West Bank settlements in having jurisdiction over land well beyond its built-up sector. Among the most generously endowed settlements is Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem, close to the Dead Sea. The settlement, with a population of just 200, offers housing to nonmembers of the kibbutz and has outlying jurisdiction of some 13.6 square miles — a spread of land equal to that of the central Israeli city of Petah Tikvah which has a population of 189,000.

What are the boundaries of building in the West Bank? The Netanyahu government won't say:

Netanyahu’s office refuses to clarify whether natural growth, as Israel understands the term, would involve expanding settlements beyond the perimeters of their already built-up environments — thereby substantially changing the reality on the ground, with Jewish settlements covering a much wider area — or whether natural growth just involves construction within the perimeters of already built-up areas.

Does building for "natural growth" respond to the needs of the families already living there, or does it attract even more families? That, too, is unclear:

Trying to predict what the pattern will be in the future in order to determine a housing policy creates a chicken-and-egg scenario: The number of West Bank newlyweds who want to set up home in the territories will depend, in part, on how plentiful — and as a result, how cheap — housing there is.

...Dror Etkes, fieldworker for the anti-settlement organization Yesh Din, predicted: “In the bigger settlements, we would probably see further migration from Israel.”

In its editorial "Unnatural Growth," The Forward, a venerable Yiddish/English newspaper hardly unsympathetic toward Israel, states the following:

Obama isn’t being unreasonable. Netanyahu is. The Israeli government’s defense of “natural growth” masks its true intent. Ministers say that families deserve the right to stay in their communities as their broods increase, and that is why settlements should be allowed to add homes, schools and synagogues. That’s a “right” enjoyed by no one else in Israel, or the United States, for that matter.

But governments do have a right — indeed, an obligation — to plan growth in their communities, to zone for appropriate use, to respect the boundaries of adjacent neighborhoods. Most of us cannot build on our property without the requisite permits and permissions, never mind suddenly decide to annex the backyard next door to accommodate a larger household.

...the Israeli public is becoming less supportive of the settlers and more convinced that the growth of outlying settlements is a detriment to national security. So are many American Jewish lawmakers and communal leaders. They are saying what the current Israeli leadership needs to hear: There’s nothing natural, or acceptable, about “natural growth.”

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