Middle East

Netanyahu proposes annexing fourth settlement bloc: radio

Palestinians inspect a training camp, which witnesses said was hit in an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip January 19, 2014. (REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that he wants to annex a fourth bloc of West Bank settlements, Army Radio reported Sunday, as two Gazans were wounded in Israeli airstrikes.

Until now, Israel has always spoken of its intention to annex three blocs of settlements in any future agreement with the Palestinians: the Etzion bloc in the south; Maaleh Adumim to the east of Jerusalem; and the Ariel bloc in the north.

The report said Netanyahu was proposing that Israel also keep hold of a group of settlements deep in the West Bank – Beit El, Ofra and Psagot – which lie to the north and east of Ramallah, the radio said.

A settlement bloc is an area where clusters of settlements have been established in relatively close proximity to one another, in which the majority of the West Bank’s 367,000 settlers currently live.

If Israel was to keep hold of the Beit El bloc as well as the others, it would mean annexing a total of 13 percent of the occupied West Bank, the radio said, describing it as a “very large percentage” of the territory.

“In the negotiating room, Netanyahu is talking about 13 percent of territory,” the radio’s diplomatic correspondent Ilil Shahar said, quoting sources close to the prime minister. “Netanyahu is proposing to a [land] swap of 3 to 4 percent then paying for the rest.”

In previous rounds of negotiations, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2001 spoke of Israel annexing 6 to 8 percent, and in 2008, then premier Ehud Olmert spoke about 7 percent.

The Palestinians want to keep Israel’s annexation of land they want for a future state to an absolute minimum, and have spoken of a maximum land swap of about 2 percent.

Netanyahu’s office refused to comment on the report.

Shaul Arieli, an expert on mapping and the future Israeli-Palestinian borders, described the proposal as infeasible.

“If we’re really talking about 13 percent, we’re talking about an idea that’s a nonstarter from the Palestinian point of view,” he told the radio.

“Israel does not have the ability to compensate the Palestinians at that level, our potential for compensation is not more than 3 to 4 percent, and of course the idea of paying is unacceptable.”

Israel and the Palestinians embarked upon a nine-month track of direct negotiations at the urging of Kerry, at the end of July, which appear to have made little progress.

Currently, Kerry’s main focus is trying to get the sides to agree on a framework to guide the negotiations forward in the coming months.

Also Sunday, two Palestinians were hurt, one critically, in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, which the military said had targeted a senior Islamic Jihad militant.

The airstrike, the third in 12 hours, came a day after militants fired another rocket at southern Israel, prompting a sharp warning from Netanyahu.

“We are determined to maintain quiet in the south,” he told ministers at the weekly Cabinet meeting. “We will do so by a policy of preventive action and strong reaction against those who try to harm us or who harm us.”

“I suggest that Hamas take our policy into account,” he said, referring to the Islamist movement that rules Gaza.

Gaza emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said the strike had hit a motorcycle in the northern neighborhood of Saftawi, leaving its rider, a 22-year-old man, in critical condition.

A 12-year-old boy who was standing nearby suffered moderate wounds in the raid, he told AFP.

Shortly afterward, the Israeli army confirmed the strike, saying it targeted a “senior operative” in the radical Islamic Jihad movement, identified as Ahmad Saad and accused of planning an imminent attack on Israel.

Over the last month, tensions have risen in and around Gaza after a year of relative calm, with four Palestinians and an Israeli killed since Dec. 20.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 20, 2014, on page 10.




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