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21 May 2024 6:06
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  •   Home > News > International

    'I knew it was dynamite': Inside Israel's 'doomsday' development

    World leaders have fought this Israeli "doomsday" settlement plan in the West Bank for decades. But now it's just "two pen strokes" away and some are worried the war in Gaza could change everything.

    The decades-old blueprint that could make or break hopes for lasting peace in the Middle East.

    If Dawod Jahalin could live like his ancestors, he would.

    But today, the reality for him and the 300 others in the Bedouin community of Jabal Al Baba is very different.

    These once-nomadic people roamed the deserts further south for centuries — a simple lifestyle spent at one with the land and their animal herds.

    Now they're wedged. Jerusalem's chaotic, urbanised outskirts are about a kilometre away, clearly visible across the valley to one side. On the other, an Israeli settlement has been built.

    Mr Jahalin's tribe inhabits a prized piece of land in one of the most conflict-hit parts of the world. 

    Some believe the future of this 12-square-kilometre area they call home is pivotal to any hope of lasting peace in the Middle East.

    A proposal to kick the Bedouins out and construct a new road and a few thousand homes for Israelis has hung over their heads for 30 years.

    The situation is so serious, US presidents have personally intervened to stop bulldozers from moving in.

    But the development of this area, which Israeli planning authorities call E1, now requires only final approvals, and there are concerns it could be rubber-stamped while the world's eyes are locked on the war in Gaza, about an hour's drive away.

    "Maybe I can ask you a question," Mr Jahalin says.

    "Why is it forbidden for a Palestinian Bedouin to live his life the way he wants to?"

    The 50-year-old local dignitary knows the answer, of course. His people are, literally, at the centre of an international diplomatic flashpoint.

    To understand why this tiny pocket of land is so important to Israelis and Palestinians, some history helps.

    Many Bedouins were forced to flee their ancestral lands when the State of Israel was established in 1948.

    Some, like those in Jabal Al Baba, tried to rekindle their traditions elsewhere.

    The community is basic: one dirt road in, a few dozen shacks and animal pens, no connection to a water or electricity network.

    It sounds harsh, but this is how the Bedouin have lived for years.

    Goats roam the steep rocky slopes and children pause a spontaneous game of football to keep an eye on them.

    "Today, I feel good, as if I own the entire world," Mr Jahalin says, surveying the sun-drenched landscape from the top of a ridge.

    "The weather is nice and right now there are no problems from the occupation forces."

    That's not always the case.

    The idea of Israelis and Palestinians living alongside each other peacefully in their own independent nations is often referred to as the "two-state solution".

    It's considered by many world leaders as critical to ending decades of violence.

    A set of agreements known as the Oslo Accords, signed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the early 1990s, made some serious inroads towards this — but left several issues unresolved.

    As part of those agreements, the West Bank was split into three administrative zones: Area A, under full Palestinian control, Area B, under joint Israeli and Palestinian control, and Area C, under full Israeli control. 

    Thirty years later, there's still no resolution.

    There are many reasons for this. One is the Israeli settlements throughout Area C.

    It is estimated more than half a million Israelis live in them, often enjoying substantially superior amenities and infrastructure compared to their Palestinian neighbours.

    Constructing new settlements or expanding existing ones is illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

    The plan to build on the land around Jabal Al Baba is considered particularly provocative because of its location.

    It's between the ancient city of Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim.

    East Jerusalem is, under international law, deemed to be part of the West Bank, and Palestinians regard it as the capital of a future state.

    Critics contend if homes for Israelis are built on E1, it will mean East Jerusalem is surrounded by settlements and cut off from the Palestinian communities it will one day be the seat of power for.

    The most recent plans for E1 could see more than 3,000 Israeli dwellings built. They only need approval from two top-level officials before construction can begin.

    "If they build here, you can forget about a Palestinian state," Mr Jahalin says.

    Opponents argue if Israel develops E1, it will split the West Bank in two, creating a sporadic line of settlements from Jerusalem to Jordan.

    "It was clear to me as soon as I saw it this was dynamite," says attorney Danny Seidemann, who has been fighting the proposal since the 90s.

    "It's a doomsday settlement because it would radically change the possibility of ever ending this conflict in the framework of two states."

    It's been talked about for almost 30 years but never built. Some fear the war in Gaza could change that.

    "Today we are in a situation where it's not one minute to midnight, it's 15 seconds to midnight, because with two strokes of a pen, E1 can become a done deal," Mr Seidemann says.

    Surrounded by settlements

    Although it hasn't yet been annexed, E1 is under full Israeli control and has been since the country's military occupation of the West Bank began in 1967.

    According to data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 45 structures in Jabal Al Baba were demolished by the occupation forces between January 2009 and August 2017.

    Under the Oslo Accords, Palestinians cannot build in Area C without a permit from Israeli authorities — the vast majority of which are rejected.

    "We are attached to our freedom. We cannot live like the urban people. It's not in our nature," Mr Jahalin says.

    According to the OCHA, about 4,500 Bedouins live in the E1 area and its periphery, across 10 communities.

    They're now encircled by settlements, and their homes are the last piece of the puzzle.

    Some ultra-orthodox and nationalist Israelis move to the West Bank for spiritual reasons, pointing to the fact the area contains some of Judaism's holiest sites and thousands of years of religious history. For them, settling is cast as a supreme act of return.

    But the state entices others there with things like housing subsidies, and, in some areas, tax benefits.

    Now, hundreds of thousands of them have moved in.

    Marco Allegra, a social scientist who's studied the area for years, says the fact E1 would effectively expand Jerusalem's footprint makes it particularly sought after for "cost-of-living" settlers.

    "The Israelis here aren't necessarily living in a caravan on a hill surrounded by Palestinians because they feel a divine connection to the land. They have more mundane considerations, like getting a cheaper mortgage in the occupied territories," he says.

    Being advanced adjacent to the E1 plan are two new highway links; one for Palestinians to use to get north to south, and another for Israelis, which would provide faster connections between Ma'ale Adumim, Jerusalem, and the rest of Israel's road network.

    The Israel-built barrier that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank — something already ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice — could also be moved to swallow the nearby settlements.

    Benny Kashriel, the long-time mayor of Ma'ale Adumim — who's been nominated as Israel's next ambassador to Italy — has backed the E1 plan since it was first tabled, and says the new road will be good for Palestinians.

    "When we build this place the traffic for the Palestinians will be much better because we are building highways and those highways will be without any checkpoints," he says.

    Palestinians' movement in the West Bank is controlled, in part, through roads they are, and aren't, allowed to drive on. Critics, like Mr Seidemann, argue the new highway, while being sold as a good thing, is "in reality a segregated road chillingly reminiscent of apartheid".

    In a sign of how tense things have become, in February, one Israeli was killed and eight were wounded when three Palestinian men opened fire on their vehicles during morning peak hour at a checkpoint outside Ma'ale Adumim.

    Two of the gunmen were shot dead and the other was arrested.

    Shortly after the attack, Israel's right-wing Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who lives in a settlement, announced a plan to expand Ma'ale Adumim with 2,350 new dwellings.

    Mr Kashriel, who has been mayor since 1992, believes the settlement at E1 will be built one day, and says it's desperately needed for his community, which was established in the 1970s.

    He says fears it would cut the West Bank in two are "fake news".

    "We have a lot of young couples who want to build their home in the place they have been born," Mr Kashriel says.

    "There are a lot of children that were born and educated here and they want to live in their city, like everyone in the world. For them it's a special neighbourhood."

    War has changed everything

    While the West Bank has long been a tinderbox, the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7, and Israel's subsequent bombardment of Gaza, has destabilised it further.

    Violence between the Israeli military, settlers and Palestinians spiked in October. According to OCHA data, 509 Palestinians and 25 Israelis were killed last year in the West Bank — the majority in the final three months of 2023. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) put the number of Israelis killed last year at 23.

    Still, a two-state solution remains the foreign policy of many Western countries, including Australia.

    Foreign Minister Penny Wong finished a press conference in Jerusalem in January by reiterating hopes of "peace, security and dignity" in the region meant finding "the pathway to a Palestinian state".

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it his life's work to block the idea. He says he plans to have full security control over the Palestinian territories for the foreseeable future. In other words: Israel's occupation of the West Bank will, once again, be expanded to Gaza, where troops will remain even after the war ends.

    While Israel has not had a military presence inside Gaza since 2005, it has blockaded its border crossings with the strip, controlling who and what goes in and out with varying degrees of intensity since 1991 — a policy which has seen the area referred to as the world's largest open-air prison. 

    Mr Netanyahu, 74, has been in office, on and off, for 16 years since 1996. But the chaos of October 7 has crushed his popularity among many voters, as have fraud charges, which are still before the courts.

    His coalition government is reliant on support from ultra-orthodox and far-right parties. It's continued to build settlements while the war in Gaza has raged.

    According to Ir Amim — an Israeli not-for-profit that monitors development in Jerusalem — Israeli planning authorities have advanced 17 blueprints for a total of more than 8,400 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem since October 7.

    "Israel has exploited the war to advance plans for massive amounts of homes for Jews in East Jerusalem," says Amy Cohen, one of the organisation's directors.

    "The speed at which they have been advancing these settlements is unparalleled. The government has fast-tracked them. It's unprecedented."

    Critics like Ms Cohen warn developing E1 is a way to take a two-state solution off the table forever.

    She says it's a good example of where countries such as Australia could do more.

    "The international community continues to focus on a two-state solution which, if you look at what's actually happening on the ground, is becoming nearly unviable," she says.

    "You have all of these irreparable and irreversible moves that Israel has created like building more settlements and seizing more land."

    With relations between Israel and its Western allies deteriorating as the deaths in Gaza mount, some believe plans for E1 could be ratified soon.

    "The problem is the Netanyahu of today is not the same man we've come to know over the past 30 years. He's different. He's fighting for political survival, and that means he's willing to do things that he would never have done in the past," Mr Seidemann says.

    "If his political survival depends on the approval of E1, then I think there's a very real possibility that he will approve it."

    After decades of delays to the E1 plan, Mr Allegra says the war in Gaza has "shaken the status quo".

    "In this moment, we're in a situation that could bring foundational changes to the trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he says.

    "In the midst of this reorientation, a future Israeli government could decide that we're going to build E1."

    Mr Jahalin believes that day is coming.

    "We fear that after the war in Gaza stops, there will be a very aggressive attack on the Bedouin communities here near East Jerusalem," he says, adding that he'd "rather die" than leave the land.

    "It is our fate. We don't have other options. We will never give up our lifestyle."


    • Reporting:
    • Graphics:
    • Photography and video: West Matteeussen, Haidarr Jones, Tom Joyner
    • Producer: Orly Halpern
    • Translations: Cherine Yazbeck


    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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