As people across the world welcome in the New Year, they will also reflect on the year just past. For Palestine and Israel, 2013 was a year that saw the resumption of "peace talks". The US-brokered talks are projected to continue until April 2014, at the end of which Secretary of State John Kerry hopes desperately that there will be a final peace agreement.
Just after midnight on the 31st December, as a "goodwill" gesture, Israel released 26 Palestinian prisoners. They were the third group of 26 detainees out of the 104 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to release in four stages following the revival of peace talks. All of the prisoners were sentenced before the 1993 Oslo Accords.
However, even before the prisoners returned home, Netanyahu had announced plans to build a further 1,400 homes in settlements across the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem. The announcement did not come as a surprise as both of the previous prisoner releases were accompanied by the publication of tenders for new settlement construction in the West Bank and illegally-annexed East Jerusalem.
As settlements and their continued expansion are considered to be one of the major obstacles in reaching a peace agreement, the expected announcement only deepened concerns that the fragile peace talks could derail. The issues of the settlements, which are deemed illegal under international law, resulted in the last breakdown of talks 3 years ago.
Despite the threat that settlement construction poses to the peace talks, Israel's building plans have not ceased, or even slowed. According to statistics released in November, in 2013 the number of settlement building projects across the Green Line rose by nearly 130 per cent compared to 2012, with seven per cent of new Israeli construction sites erected last year located in the West Bank. According to settlement watchdog Peace Now, tenders have been issued for 3,472 new settlement units beyond the 1967 lines in the eight months since March 2013.
From January to June, in the months prior to the resumption of talks, Israeli construction in the West Bank increased by 70 per cent compared with the same period in 2012. Compared with the last quarter of 2012, the first quarter of 2013 saw settlement construction in the West Bank increase by 335 per cent, the highest rate in seven years, according to data issued by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.
There are currently 125 Israeli settlements and approximately 100 Israeli settlement "outposts" (some of which are illegal even under Israeli law), which are home to around 367,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank alone, a number which is growing. According to Israeli military radio, the population in Israel's illegal West Bank settlements has grown twice as much as in Israel itself. Figures apparently show an increase of 7,700 settlers in the occupied West Bank during the first six months of 2013. This represents a 2.1 per cent increase in six months compared with an annual population growth of two per cent registered in Israel.
While not commenting directly on the West Bank rise, Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel said, "I am delighted that construction starts exceeded predictions and erroneous statements in different media outlets." In 2014, he added, the world will see the marketing of "thousands" of housing units in places like Kiryat Gat, Modiin, Beit Shemesh, Kiryat Bialik, Rosh Ha'ayin and more.
Alongside the increased construction, there has also been an increase in settler violence. Compared to the 353 settler attacks against Palestinians and their property recorded in the West Bank during 2012, there had already been 492 attacks by October 2013, according to PA monitoring official Ghassen Daglas.
In addition to the illegality of settlements, any act of violence perpetrated by residents of settlements that is not investigated efficiently by the Israeli police is also a breach of Israel's international legal obligations. Out of the hundreds of attacks on Palestinians and their property, only 8.5 per cent of the complaints raised have led to an indictment.
Netanyahu has requested Uri Ariel to delay the publication of tenders for the 1,400 new housing units until after Kerry's visit, scheduled to begin on 2 January, signalling his awareness of the sensitivity of settlement construction. However, a recent plan being drawn up could mean that, in future, Israel will not be obliged to publish tenders, as it is now.
A creative plan advanced by the prime minister's advisor on settlement affairs, Gabi Kadosh, will see "urban" settlements, in which the Israeli government is legally obliged to issue public tenders to market land, being redefined as "rural" settlements, in which there is no such obligation, shielding settlement construction from public scrutiny. Despite Peace Now reporting that settlement construction in the first half of 2013 rose by a drastic 70 per cent compared with the first half of 2012, 86 per cent of the new construction was carried out in areas where tenders were not required.
Meanwhile, a bill sponsored by right-wing politician Miri Regev proposing to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley – a de facto annexation – was passed by a ministerial committee with the support of eight members of the government, less than a week ago. The Jordan Valley is another of the stumbling blocks for reaching a peace agreement.
The Jordan Valley, which runs the length of the West Bank and makes up one-fifth of its total area, has an abundance of fertile terrain and water; the first settlement was built there in 1968. Within a decade 19 settlements had sprung up, all illegal under international law. In the 5 years after that, another 11 went up; today there are 38 settlements in the area. The settlement farms in the valley, which make use of the fertile land and water resources, bring Israel an export income of around $128 million a year. The Palestinian farmers in the region are, on the other hand, reportedly experiencing a 20-60 per cent decline in revenues from the export of peppers, for example.
Israel estimates the value of goods produced in settlements across the West Bank and sold to European countries to be $300 million per year. This means that the settlements are an enterprise, which despite being understood as illegal in most countries, are propped up by foreign support from Europe at the expense of the local Palestinian population. For example, the confiscation of water resources by the settlements in the Jordan Valley sees the 9,400 Israeli settlers consume 6.6 times more water than the 56,000 Palestinian residents living in the same area, according to Save the Children.
Last year the European Union issued a directive that will prohibit EU states from signing deals issuing grants, funding, prizes or scholarships with Israel unless a settlement exclusion clause is included in the agreement. Yet, some argue that harsher measures are needed.
For Palestine, 2013 will be remembered as a year of records. According to data compiled by the rights group, three times as many Palestinians were killed in the West Bank in 2013 compared with 2012, the highest number in 5 years. The arrest rate in 2013 was only one per cent higher than the rate in 2012; however, it was 17 per cent higher than 2011. While 2013 will be remembered as the year that peace talks resumed the facts on the ground show that real "peace" is far from being a reality.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.