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How the Misperceptions Roll On
Former CIA Analyst
Imagine my chagrin. While vacationing in beautiful Vancouver, I had my sun-and-mountain reverie interrupted on Tuesday by a New York Times article seeming to give the final word on Ariel Sharon’s plans — blessed, of course, by George Bush — for the disposition of Israel’s border with the West Bank and the Israeli settlements inside that territory. The article, by veteran diplomatic correspondent Steven Erlanger, discussed the “small furor” supposedly set off inside the Bush administration by Israel’s announced determination to build 3,500 new housing units in Maale Adumim, the largest of several Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the fact that this new move will unilaterally expand Israel’s borders into the Palestinian territory. But Erlanger gives us the impression that this is not really the disastrous development it might seem. He quotes David Makovsky, of the pro-Israeli think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as saying that after all things are not so bad because Sharon, the Israeli most associated with wanting 100 percent of the West Bank, has now scaled down his sights to only 8 percent. This 8 percent is the proportion of the West Bank to be incorporated on the Israeli side of the separation wall when its new route, approved by the Israeli cabinet in February, is completed.
This was bad enough for my vacation mood, but then come to find out a columnist for Canada’s national newspaper the Globe and Mail, Marcus Gee, picked up the story the next day and, for all of Canada to see, played it as indicating a great breakthrough:
“After decades of blood and tears, a solution to the conflict over the Holy Land is emerging . . . . It is not an entirely just solution. But it is a solution, and it could give both sides what they need most: an independent homeland for the Palestinians and secure borders for Israel. The solution is the work of one man: Ariel Sharon.”
Thus are widespread misperceptions and gross distortions of reality born among a broad segment of the media-savvy public.
Steven Erlanger might be excused for swallowing the unlikely story that the Bush administration is really in anything like “small furor” over Israel’s settlement expansion plans, but it is dismaying to see a correspondent of Erlanger’s caliber allowing himself to be misled by an apologist for the Israeli settlement enterprise like David Makovsky.
Over the last several years, Makovsky has made a career of defending Israel’s settlements and its wall in a way that tries to minimize the impact on the Palestinians of these massive Israeli intrusions into Palestinian territory. He now seems unfortunately to have persuaded Erlanger that the barrier (which is indeed a 26-foot-high concrete wall throughout Jerusalem and environs, as well as in many sections elsewhere along its route) is of relatively minor significance to the Palestinians.
Makovsky used to defend the old route of the wall as taking “only” 15 percent of West Bank territory; now he can triumphantly say that the new route is “even better” because it puts only half that amount on the Israeli side. But his math is screwy, his logic badly distorted, and Erlanger has fallen for it. Makovsky doesn’t care; Erlanger should know better.
The wall, Erlanger claims, relying on Makovsky’s “research,” puts a mere 8 percent of West Bank land and fewer than 10,000 Palestinians on the Israeli side, leaving 99.5 percent of Palestinians living in 92 percent of the West Bank. Yet this is what Erlanger and Makovsky leave out of the equation:
1) the approximately 195,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem (nearly 10 percent of the West Bank’s total population) will remain on the Israeli side of the wall, separated from the West Bank by a concrete wall, multiple checkpoints, and a permit system going into effect in July that will prevent nearly all Jerusalemites from entering the West Bank and West Bankers from entering Jerusalem (Erlanger does note as an afterthought that his numbers do not include the Palestinians in Jerusalem — an odd omission unless one assumes that actually counting this huge number of people whose lives are being totally disrupted by the wall is simply too inconvenient for his idyllic picture);
2) the wall to be built around Maale Adumim and the fact that the entire area of Jerusalem and its environs will end up on Israel’s side of the wall mean that the West Bank will be divided into two totally non-contiguous areas, attached only by a promised highway that will permit Palestinians to skirt Jerusalem to the east; this is Ariel Sharon’s idea of contiguity, which he calls “transportation contiguity”;
3) several Palestinian suburbs of East Jerusalem to the north and the south have been or will soon be surrounded by the wall on all sides, rendering them small concentration camps to which entry and egress will be allowed only to permit-holders and only through a gate manned by Israelis; the thousands of Palestinians in these areas whose livelihoods lie in Jerusalem will be left high and dry;
4) the entire Jordan Valley, encompassing nearly one-quarter of the West Bank, will most assuredly never be relinquished by Ariel Sharon or any Israeli government on the right (even most Labor governments have envisioned retaining this strategic, settlement-filled territory in perpetuity, and Ehud Barak’s best offer at Camp David in 2000 involved Israel holding it under a long-term lease), meaning that Makovsky’s “92-percent solution” is actually only at best a “68-percent solution” that would leave the so-called Palestinian “state” in three pieces counting Gaza, each completely surrounded by and under the domination of Israel, and with no capital; each of the two West Bank land segments, moreover, would be made into Swiss cheese by the intrusion of fingers of the wall built to accommodate Israeli settlements;
5) tens of thousands of Palestinians live in towns and villages along the route of the wall that have been bisected by it, leaving rich farmland, olive and fruit orchards, and fresh water wells on Israel’s side, unreachable by their Palestinian owners except via a limited number of gates in the wall that are manned irregularly by Israeli security personnel;
6) 53 Palestinian communities, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, will be surrounded on three sides by the wall — twice the number so enclosed under the old route;
7) the hundreds of miles of wall and fence have necessitated the demolition of hundreds of Palestinian homes, the bulldozing of hundreds of thousands of acres of private agricultural land, and the razing of thousands of olive and fruit trees; Israel has called this wall temporary, but the demolished homes and the destroyed olive groves can never be restored.
The pity about Erlanger’s heavy reliance on Makovsky to interpret the situation on the ground for him is that he is right there himself, able to observe first hand what the wall is doing to the Palestinians or, if he somehow cannot get out on the street, able at least to look at any map, including ones issued by the Israeli government itself, to see with his own eyes that what Israel is creating is not some benign situation in which the Palestinians get almost all (well, 92 percent) of the West Bank, but a truly horrific, Kafkaesque nightmare in which no Palestinian will be free.
And it must not be forgotten that, far from leaving the Palestinians alone to make a life for themselves in a few Bantustans comprising 50 or 60 or maybe even 90 percent of the West Bank, Sharon’s actual long-term intent is to make life so miserable for the Palestinians that those left in the small remnants of their territory will simply gradually filter out. This process may take a while, but Sharon is pragmatic and therefore patient — he and his countrymen have already been waiting 2,000 years to take this land — and it is already beginning to happen in any case. The wall has already turned some of the West Bank cities that it most affects into virtual ghost towns as residents move into the interior where some kind of livelihood might be possible. Sharon and his right wing can wait before he needs to squeeze them further.
KATHLEEN CHRISTISON is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.