Strangers in the night

"A man's home is his castle" is a cry that echoes in American ears. While technology may be eating away at our liberties online, Americans still believe they are secure in their own homes. In some states in the South and West, dominion over one's own home is reinforced by "stand your ground" laws, which permit homeowners to use deadly force against intruders, though not without controversy.

Not so in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, where invasions and occupations of Palestinian homes by Israeli settlers have taken place with the supervision of police for decades. On Oct. 20, nine Israeli families took over 10 more apartments belonging to Palestinian families in Silwan, the biblical Siloam, on the edge of the Old City of Jerusalem. Three weeks earlier, on Sept. 30, Israeli settlers took over 25 apartment units Silwan in "the biggest settler takeover since Jews began buying up properties ... two decades ago."

Home invasion -- like settlement-building, confiscation of open Palestinian land, and home demolition -- is part of an aggressive Israeli strategy for pre-empting Palestinian living space in the Holy Land. For years, Palestinians and Israeli human rights and settlement-monitoring organizations have raised the alarm against these practices. With these tactics, the Israeli political establishment works to preclude the possibility of a viable, sovereign and independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem.

No living Israeli leader better personifies this strategy than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His government's most recent settlement building focus has been in the hypersensitive and potentially explosive area of occupied Arab East Jerusalem. There, Israel has announced plans to build 400 units in the Har Homa settlement, just outside Bethlehem, and about 600 in the Ramat Shlomo settlement in the north of the city.

Israel's largest English-language newspaper, Haaretz, blasted this strategy as perpetuating a right-wing government and endangering Israel. Netanyahu, the paper charged, is "willing to sacrifice the state's vital interests -- to undermine relations with the United States and Europe, destroy any chance of an agreement with the Palestinians, worsen tensions between Jews and Arabs, undermine freedom of expression and ignore the country's economic distress."

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Criticism was not limited to Israel. The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting on the issue strongly criticizing Israel for its settlement plans for East Jerusalem. U.N. political chief Jeffrey Feltman said the settlements policy raises "grave doubts" about Israel's plans for durable peace with Palestinians. The European Union warned that future ties with Israel depended on Israel's engagement to peace based on two states.

Even Israel's strongest ally, the United States, said it was "deeply concerned" at what it called provocative actions by Israel, warning that the settlement project in East Jerusalem would distance Israel from "even its closest allies." White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said the new settlement building would "only draw condemnation from the international community."      

Earnest added that "the United States has repeatedly made clear our view that settlement activity is illegitimate and only serves to complicate efforts to achieve a two-state solution in the region."

U.S. frustration with Netanyahu exploded into a public feud last week with a Jeffrey Goldberg article in The Atlantic titled "The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations is Officially Here." Goldberg predicts that after the U.S. November midterm elections, the U.S.-Israeli relationship stands to "get significantly worse." He assigns blame for deterioration of relations on Netanyahu and his cabinet.

In the words of one official, Obama administration officials are "red-hot" with anger at Netanhayu for "pursuing settlement policies on the West Bank, and building policies in Jerusalem, that they believe have fatally undermined Secretary of State John Kerry's peace process."

The official has drawn the same conclusion the Haaretz editors did, that Netanyahu "won't do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he's interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He's not [Yitzhak] Rabin, he's not [Ariel] Sharon, he's certainly no [Menachem] Begin. He's got no guts."

Short-term political thinking, Goldberg concludes, may have its appeal to the Israeli public, but "for Israel's future as an ally of the United States, this formula is a disaster."

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]


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