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Israel responds to UNESCO vote with new West Bank settlements

delayed gratification

The Israeli government immediately said it would move ahead with "sensitive housing projects" as a rebuttal to UNESCO's Oct. 31 decision to grant Palestine full-member status. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a forum of eight senior ministers formally decided the next day to initiate a new wave of settlement construction on the West Bank.

The Prime Minister's Office said the construction of 2,000 housing units planned in East Jerusalem, Gush Etzion and Ma'aleh Adumim should be expedited. "All of the mentioned areas are ones that would remain in Israeli control under any future peace agreement," the PMO said in a statement. The "forum of eight" also resolved to suspend the transfer to the Palestinian Authority of tax remittances collected by Israel in October. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman additionally announced that Israel will "review its relations" with the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (Haaretz, Nov. 2; YNet, Oct. 31)

Only 13 of the 194 UNESCO members voted with Israel against granting full membership to Palestine. 107 voted for, while 52 abstained and the rest were absent. France voted for the Palestinians, and the UK abstained. The US responded to the vote by suspending its $80 million-a-year contribution to UNESCO's $643 million budget. The cutback, decreed by Congress, is going ahead even as UNESCO works closely with the US in Afghanistan—on literacy, education, gender equity, clean water and basic health programs. (Toronto Star, Nov. 2)

UNESCO director Irina Bokova called the US a "critical partner" and pleaded with Washington to "find a way forward" to continue its support, warning that it will otherwise be "impossible" for the organization to maintain its activities. "UNESCO is encouraged that the United States will maintain its membership in the organization and hopes that a resolution to the funding issue will ultimately be identified," Bokova said in a statement. (PTI, Nov. 3)

Israel's propaganda apparati quickly mobilized to delegitimize UNESCO's decision. The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE, chaired by Yochanan Manor of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) issued a study asserting that Palestinian textbooks do not meet UNESCO's requirements for tolerance and non-racism. The report, which examined 117 Palestinian textbooks, was purportedly commissioned before the Palestinians filed their UNESCO application. It charges that Palestinian textbooks and maps are largely devoid of any reference to Israel, geographic or otherwise. IMPACT-SE also found that many of the Palestinian schoolbooks glorify jihad, death and acts of violence, predominantly against Jews. (YNet, Oct. 2) Israeli media accounts did not make clear if these were Fatah-approved textbooks used on the West Bank or Hamas-approved textbooks used in the Gaza Strip, or if the reviewed textbooks are in use currently.

The Palestinians have also asked the Security Council to grant them full membership in the United Nations, and a vote is tentatively set for Nov. 11. The US, as a permanent member of the council, has pledged to veto the request. But the Palestinians are still trying to rally the required nine-vote majority that would trigger the veto, viewing this as a moral victory that would place Washington at odds with most of the international community. If the Security Council bid fails, the Palestinians will instead seek the lesser status of a UN non-member observer state, like the Vatican. This would require approval by the General Assembly, where it is almost certain to be voted up. (WP, Nov. 1)

The Gilad Shalit deal
In a deal with Hamas, Israel won the release of Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier held on the Gaza Strip since 2006. Shalit was freed Oct. 18, on an Israeli pledge to free 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Israel immediately released 477, with an additional 550 to be freed in two months. Many are to be relocated to third countries, including Turkey, Syria and Qatar. Hamas officials said their members had been subject in Israeli prisons to "torture, compulsion and revenge." At least one released Palestinian detainee, Wafa al-Bass, indiscretely declared her next goal upon stepping off the bus in Gaza: to abduct more Israeli soldiers and thereby win the release of more Palestinian prisoners. (NYT, Oct. 18)

While supported by most Israelis, the move has been harshly condemned by right, both within Israel and internationally. National Review in an Oct. 28 commentary called the deal a "colossal breach of justice," asserting that many of those to be released "are hardened terrorists with Israeli and even American blood on their hands... Some of them almost certainly will express their gratitude with machine guns and dynamite. The first wave of 477 prisoners swapped for Shalit includes at least three terrorists who have slaughtered Americans." The commentary points to Ahlam Tamimi, jailed in connection with a 2001 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem restaurant that killed 15, including one US national. Now in Jordan, Tamimi reportedly told a Hamas website: "It was a calculated act, performed with conviction and faith in Allah," she told a Hamas website. "Jihad warriors are always ready to die as martyrs, to be arrested—or to succeed. I managed to overcome the barrier of prison and was released. Why should I repent?"

Shalit himself, after his long ordeal, seems to have immediately become a political football. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan held a press conference in Tel Aviv to blast the prisoner swap. Dagan said: "I oppose the deal which was implemented. I thought it wrong to release 140 terrorists to the territories. Many of them will resume their terrorist activity. We bolstered Hamas and weakened the PA." He went on to criticize the jubilation around Shalit's release—and stopped barely short of criticizing Shalot himself: "I'm not sure I was thrilled with the fact that Netanyahu greeted him back. It seemed problematic to me, he's being portrayed as a hero, I would beware of such definitions." (YNet, Nov. 2)

Meshulam Nahari, Knesset member with the ultra-orthodox Shas party, slammed Shalit for going to the beach with his father on the first Shabbat after his release, instead of going to the synagogue for prayer. Nahari asserted that Shalit and his father should have used his first Saturday of freedom to say the benediction of deliverance—a Jewish prayer of thanks traditionally said by those who survived an adversity or were released from prison. (YNet, Nov. 3)

The New York Times in an Oct. 19 editorial raised concerns about such a backlash: "Now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has compromised with Hamas, we fear that to prove his toughness he will be even less willing to make the necessary compromises to restart negotiations... One has to ask: If Mr. Netanyahu can negotiate with Hamas—which shoots rockets at Israel, refuses to recognize Israel’s existence and, on Tuesday, vowed to take even more hostages—why won't he negotiate seriously with the Palestinian Authority, which Israel relies on to help keep the peace in the West Bank?"

The Gaza question
Netanyahu, in his speech at the United Nations on Sept. 23 urging no recognition of Palestinian statehood, argued that Israeli concessions have only encouraged Palestinian extremists: "But Israel did more than just make sweeping offers. We actually left territory. We withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 and from every square inch of Gaza in 2005. That didn't calm the Islamic storm, the militant Islamic storm that threatens us. It only brought the storm closer and made it stronger. Hezbollah and Hamas fired thousands of rockets against our cities from the very territories we vacated. See, when Israel left Lebanon and Gaza, the moderates didn't defeat the radicals, the moderates were devoured by the radicals." (Haaretz transcript)

Israel's Gaza Gateway blog, which opposes the siege of the Gaza Strip, responded to Netanyahu's portrayal:

However, developments in Gaza in recent years would seem to impart a different lesson—one that Netanyahu failed to mention in his speech. Netanyahu linked between Israel’s “disengagement” and the strengthening of Hamas, but that is not where Israel's policy towards Gaza ended. The closure policy that soon followed, and which is still in effect, has been the subject of growing criticism by Israeli journalists, commentators and researchers who have argued that rather than fulfilling its explicit objective of weakening Hamas, the policy has actually achieved the opposite outcome...

The closure imposed on the Gaza Strip has remained in place since 2007. During this period, the civilian economy in Gaza has collapsed, and Palestinians living in the Strip have been denied the right to visit their families, study or engage in commerce in the West Bank. To date, the closure has not helped stop the firing of rockets, bring back Gilad Shalit, or cause the downfall of the Hamas regime—objectives cited by the Israeli government to justify the closure. Instead, Israeli soldiers have found themselves discussing how many rolls of toilet paper should be allowed into the Gaza Strip... It's time to allow Gaza to be a different kind of example, for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Israeli warplanes struck the Gaza Strip, killing at least 10 Palestinians on Oct. 30, and rockets fired from Gaza left one Israeli dead—the worst violence over the Strip since August. The strike came hours after Islamic Jihad, which had been firing rockets and mortars into Israel, accepted an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire. (Bloomberg, Oct. 30)

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