Home Page

Middle East Bulletin interview with Col. (Ret.) Shaul Arieli, GI Signatory

By: Middle East Bulletin, Middle East Progress


Middle East Bulletin interview with Col. (Ret.) Shaul Arieli, GI Signatory; former commander of the northern brigade in the Gaza Strip; board member, Israel’s Council on Peace and Security.

Last Friday marked the fifth anniversary of the demonstrations near the separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bil’in. In parallel, Israel begun two weeks ago moving the barrier in the area according to the High Court’s ruling from 2007. Why do the demonstrations go on if the barrier is in the process of being rerouted?
The formal Palestinian position on the barrier is that it should be built on the Green Line. In Bil’in, after rerouting the barrier, approximately 2000 dunam [about 500 acres] of the village’s lands will remain on the Israeli side of the barrier. From the Palestinian perspective, these lands are the village’s source of income and therefore demonstrations continue and will continue.

In general, this pattern of civil protest that we have been seeing in Bil’in and Naalin attracts media especially because of the participation of Israeli and international leftist activists. In my opinion, this trend will diminish with the completion of the barrier partially because topographically it will be harder to demonstrate then. I estimate though that if Israel renews the construction of the barrier in Gush Etzion, we will see demonstrations there.
The Council on Peace and Security, of which you are a board member, has a unique status as ‘friend of court’ with the Israeli High Court of Justice. What can you tell us about other pending petitions relevant to the barrier?
There are several pending petitions but three are most significant: first, Gush Etzion, on which the court last held a discussion in 2007. The reason, in my opinion, is that the court links this petition with the second relevant petition which is the one against the ‘permits regime.’ And third, the petition against the barrier around Maale Edumim, the construction of which was put on hold by the State of Israel itself. Construction orders on the additional 40 percent of the planned route haven’t been published yet so I am not sure what exactly will happen with that in the future.
Can you explain what the ‘permits regime’ is?
Today, Palestinians are not allowed to enter the area between the barrier and the Green Line unless they are residents of the area or owners of land or business there. In practice, the whole area known as the seam zone is outside of Palestinian living range. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned against this regime arguing that instead of sweeping penalty, Israel should have security checks in place. But it is impossible to place so many security check points along the seam zone.
This case is very complicated because it touches the overall security paradigm of the seam zone. The court will need to find a legal maneuver to rule here and that is why it has been avoiding a decision in years.
It has recently been published that Israel is planning to renew the construction of the barrier south of Jerusalem between Har Gilo and al-Walaje. What can you tell us about the area and why is construction restarting only now, four years after the original plan?
There is a major security breach south of Jerusalem between the neighborhood of Gilo and Har Gilo. The file is still being discussed in court and the Council on Peace and Security is involved in the discussion but there is a five-kilometer-long section between Beitar Illit and Har Gilo that the state is planning to build now. The decision is currently under a process of submission of objections which will be followed by a petition. In my opinion, construction there will be stalled.
How would the construction of the barrier there affect the situation in Jerusalem?
The area is south of Jerusalem and not in the city itself but everything is very tense and sensitive now. Any such act can lead to a dangerous outburst. We are already seeing an escalation in the number of security incidents that could at some point reach a critical mass leading to a significant wave of violence. And we never know what will be the trigger: a religious reason, as usually is the case with Jerusalem, the Jewish settlement in Sheikh Jarah or the barrier.

What is the status of the barrier in other areas?
Forty percent of the planned barrier is not complete but this consists mostly of the three territorial fingers digging deep into the Palestinian territory—Ariel-Kedumim, Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion. On the Green Line, about 85 percent is completed.

What is delaying the completion of the remaining 40 percent?
There are multiple reasons. First, the United States opposes such deep penetration into the Palestinian territory. Second, it will be hard to convince the court that the planned route is reasonable. Third, the costs are massive. And fourth, the construction can inflame the ground.

What is the contribution of the barrier to the relatively peaceful security situation of the past few years?
The barrier has a major security role but its contribution has to be viewed through the prism of a larger context including other factors such as the policies pursued by Mahmoud Abbas, the activities of the Palestinian security forces, and the distribution of roadblocks and checkpoints. But most important—and there is a wide misunderstanding among the Israeli and international public about that—is that there is a very significant difference between the original planned route, which sought to annex 20 percent of the West Bank, and the barrier built in practice which annexes 4.5 percent of the area and is therefore much more security-oriented. This is a result of a continuing effort by our Council and the High Court. And this route can theoretically be used as a permanent border as it still enables equal land swaps.

As part of your job with the Economic Cooperation Foundation, you regularly monitor the developments on the ground in the West Bank. What is your take on Israel’s recent removal of checkpoints and roadblocks and how does it translate into improvement of Palestinian access and movement?
There is significant easing of access and movement and removal of many important checkpoints. However, we can still talk about three main causes that place a sort of low glass ceiling hindering the development of the Palestinian economy. First, the ban on Palestinian access to the Jordan Valley. Second, the ban on Palestinian entrance to East Jerusalem. And third, a small number of roads in the West Bank are still closed to Palestinian movement.

Speaking about roads, what significance do you attach to the courts’ ruling on road 443? What about other separated roads in the West Bank?
Route 443 was the last road to have been closed down by a court order. A small number of traffic routes in the West Bank are still shut down to Palestinian movement, not by court orders but in practice using roadblocks. The ruling on 443 is more significant legally and symbolically than practically because as part of its ruling, the court rejected the petition against closing the part of the road between the detention center Ofer Camp and the town of Beitunia. This is a short 200 meter-long road but one without which Palestinians have no reason to go through the hassle of multiple security checks required when driving on Israeli roads.

What can Israel do to further ease access and movement in the West Bank without undertaking unreasonable security risks?
The ability to act in the current political stalemate is very limited and therefore there is a need to link the renewal of negotiations to actions on the ground. For example, convert percentages of area C to areas A and B; allow the Palestinian police to spread out in area B as it was prior to the second intifada; evacuate illegal outposts particularly those standing on private Palestinian lands and those that prevent territorial contiguity. It is also possible and needed to remove more roadblocks and checkpoints. There are five-six additional checkpoints that will significantly ease Palestinian movement and that can be removed from a security perspective.

You were recently interviewed by the Israeli Channel 10 on the map former Prime Minister Olmert allegedly presented Abbas with. Can you elaborate on that plan?
In general, the plan offered land swaps amounting to 6.5 percent of the West Bank that would be annexed to Israel with 80 percent of Israelis residing outside of the Green Line—out of half a million, including East Jerusalem—remaining where they are. The Palestinian demand is for 2 percent of the land to be annexed and 75 percent of Israelis to remain in their houses. The gist of argument is more or less on the Ariel-Karnei Shomron block. In my opinion, there is no real problem bridging this gap with Israel giving up on this settlement block and the Palestinians making greater compromises in areas where there is an agreement between the two sides.
The real issue is the historical basin in Jerusalem where the Palestinians would accept a division according to demographics along the lines of the solution proposed at the time by Clinton, and Israel wants international control of the basin. I think that the issue of refugees isn’t a real problem. As for security, and that is my personal opinion, the future Palestinian state must be demilitarized. And more about the demilitarization can be found in the new annexes of the Geneva Initiative

According to reports in the media, indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are expected to start soon. From your experience as a member of the 2000 negotiations team, how do you see negotiations evolving in the short and medium terms?
Indirect negotiations have been taking place anyway throughout the last year albeit slowly. The objective of these negotiations is to produce as fast as possible a direct negotiations track and this can be done by allotting a time frame for negotiations and deciding in advance the issues for discussion. But if the two sides don’t want to reach an agreement, no negotiations will help. The big question is what the United States will do and whether it will operate in accelerated speed to bridge between the two sides before things spin out of control here.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has ramifications for regional and even global stability and therefore its solution is not merely the interest of Israelis and Palestinians but also of the rest of the world.

You served as commander of the northern brigade in the Gaza Strip. How do you read the political map in the Strip and how should Israel and the world deal with the Hamas’ rule there?

The only solution rests on a political act and not a military one. I am referring to two things: one, renewal of negotiations between Israel and the PLO; and, two, inclusion of Hamas in the future Palestinian government which will be formed after an agreement is reached with Israel. This will be a Hamas that recognizes Israel and accepts the agreement signed with it.
We should be worried about when Egypt completes the fence blocking Gaza because that will put Hamas in an unbearable situation in which all its supply lines are shut down. Hamas might respond then with actions that can drag Israel into dangerous military moves.
In the long run, the only way to undermine Hamas and let the PLO contain it is through a genuine political process leading to a peace agreement.

is now planning to erect a fence along its border with Egypt. As someone who spent years in that area, what do you think of this plan?
I think such a fence is needed, not so much for security reasons but for criminal ones. The absence of a fence allows for trafficking in women, drug trade, arms smuggling, illegal immigration and so forth.