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Settlements by the back door.

THE SCEPTICS AMONG Palestinians and other Arabs who said after Israel's elections in June 1992 that Yitzhak Rabin's Labour party and Yitzhak Shamir's Likud differed only in style, not substance, are looking increasingly smug. They also have reason to believe that the new Clinton administration has little interest in putting pressure on Rabin.

Palestinians, as well as Israeli groups such as Peace Now, admit that Rabin is sticking to the letter to his agreement with the US government to abandon the Likud policy of funding settlement construction in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But under the cover of an emollient and compromising posture that he has adopted towards the United States, they claim he is continuing Likud policy by other means. Moreover, far from fulfilling his promises of a more conciliatory security policy in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Rabin has clamped down even harder on the 1.6m Palestinians living there.

Claims that the government may be pursuing a devious settlements policy have hardly come at an opportune moment for Rabin. Israel has just received the first tranche of $2bn out of the $10bn in cheap loans guaranteed by the US government. Washington only agreed to release these guarantees after Rabin made his pledge to limit settlement construction. The US guarantees have enabled Israel to borrow money at far lower interest rates than would have been available if it had been underwriting the loans itself, and on far more generous repayment terms.

In theory, any suggestion that Rabin is reneging on his commitment could lead to the United States reducing these guarantees, costing Israel millions of dollars. However, senior State Department officials refuse to be specific on Washington's response to any violations.

Finance Ministry officials in Jerusalem say there is no question of the loans being used to fund settlement building. They say they want to use the money to boost their privatisation drive. From the initial $2bn released at the end of March, $1.4bn is earmarked for loans to the private sector. "Companies will be able to borrow money at the same 7.5% rate that the government is paying for the loans, but they must use it for real investments that will create real jobs - not as working capital," says Shlomo Maoz, a senior economics official at Israel's London embassy. The remaining $600m will go towards the import segment of the government's 1993 infrastructural budget, paying for raw materials, machines and other needs. This is part of a five-year, $20bn infrastructural investment programme, says Maoz.

Although the Palestinians remain unconvinced, Peace Now says it has no reason to doubt the Labour government's assurances about the way in which the US guaranteed loans will be spent. "This money will not be used for settlements," says a spokesman at its Jerusalem office. But he points out that the loans money will release other funds, which could be spent on settlement construction in the West Bank if the government so desired. Peace Now's main concern is that the government is moving the goalposts, getting round its self-imposed ban on new settlements by allowing the expansion of existing ones.

When Rabin agreed terms with the United States last year, he said that 11,000 units in the West Bank still being constructed using government money would be completed. But Peace Now claims that, six months on, there is little evidence of any slowdown in the 144 settlements spread across the territory. Most of the building is going on in the larger settlements, but smaller ones in remote locations are also undergoing expansion, says the spokesman.

Moreover, what slowdown there is only applies to government-funded construction. Private developers are being allowed to build new properties, even if this is counter to the spirit of the agreement with the United States.

The most provocative move is Rabin's extension of the Jerusalem boundary, within which the government is placing no controls on settlement construction. From the time of his election, Rabin vowed to continue building houses for Jewish immigrants in East Jerusalem and the parts of the West Bank within the city boundary. The new boundary means that developers are now free to build housing in an area that runs as far south as Hebron and as far north as Ramallah.

Government officials dismiss these allegations, saying that "the only building activity is on houses which were under construction when we took office." When asked to comment on the reports, a senior State Department official repeated the US government line that "settlements are an obstacle to peace", but would not say anything specific about the current situation. He claimed the Clinton administration is happy with the assurances it has received over the use to which the loan money will be put. However, he added that "through our post in Israel and with the embassy in Washington we will follow up their activities on a continuous basis."

In recent months, the controversy over settlements has taken a back seat to security issues, as Rabin has found himself fending off accusations from inside Israel as well as from abroad that his tactics have been unnecessarily tough. This is ironic, given that accusing the Labour party of being weak on security was one of the chief tactics employed by Likud in the June 1992 election. Claims that the substance of Labour security policy differs little from the previous government do not just focus on Rabin's dramatic expulsion of over 400 alleged members of Hamas last December and his obdurate refusal to allow more than 100 to return.

On a day-to-day basis, the military is using lethal force far more often than under the Likud government, according to indigenous human rights groups, as well as international bodies. According to the Israeli human rights group Bethselem, the security forces shot dead 76 Palestinians between August 1992 and January 1993, including 17 children, compared to 63 individuals in the first six months of 1992, while the Likud was still in power.

Human rights groups also point to the continuation of the practice of destroying the homes of suspected Palestinian activists. When Rabin was elected, he offered to mothball this tactic as a "confidence-building measure," to restart the peace process, but UNRWA has counted 18 separate occasions since July 1992 when Palestinians have had their houses blown up. The most destructive incident occurred on 11 February, when 19 houses in the Arisha quarter of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip were demolished with artillery fire and explosive charges, after four male residents were arrested on still unspecified charges. One hundred and eighty two people were left homeless after the incident.

With the continuing upsurge in Jewish-Arab violence, the Israeli public is demanding tougher measures to combat Palestinian attacks on themselves and their property. Thirteen Israelis were killed by Palestinians in March, one of the highest monthly death tolls for Israelis since the Intifada began in December 1987. One response was the decision on 22 March to expand the size of the police force from 18,000 to 20,000. The other was to seal off the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem from Israel.

But, despite the level of violence being far worse than before December's mass expulsion, Rabin is showing no inclination to repeat this action. He realises that a similarly brutal response would attract yet more international condemnation and deal another blow to the already stalled peace process, two considerations that Yitzhak Shamir would probably have ignored. Only optimists interpret this as a sign that Rabin does want to be different, and that he is genuinely keen to make real progress towards peace with Israel's Arab neighbours.
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Title Annotation:Israel's funding of new settlements in Occupied Territories
Author:Norton, Andre
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Withdraw here, settle there.
Next Article:Give us our due.

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