Last Thursday the United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine to an observer state. The vote passed with an overwhelming majority and Israel warned that it would retaliate with a series of punitive measures for what it perceived to be a unilateral Palestinian act.
These have come primarily through a set of announcements on the acceleration of settlement building. In particular, announcements that the Israeli government would now move ahead with approving plans to build in an area known as E1 has resulted in an international outcry. And as Europe weighed up its options for how to respond, including leaks from the UK that they were considering recalling the UK's ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, in protest, a second announcement was made that plans first announced in 2010 to build 1700 new homes in the neighbourhood of Ramat Shlomo, would again be discussed.
But announcing settlement expansion is hardly new in the recent history of Israel, so why such an extreme reaction to the area known as E1? E1 is piece of land 12km squared, in between East Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. Ma'ale Adumim is a major Israeli city of around 40,000 residents. It is considered by many Israelis to be an outlying suburb of Jerusalem that will remain in the hands of Israel should a final status agreement be reached. However, it is by international law, a settlement with exactly the same legal status of that of every other settlement in the West Bank. E1 is a neighbouring area between Ma'ale Adumim and Jerusalem, currently with unapproved plans to build close to 4000 housing units housing approximately 20,000 residents. Building in E1 would, in effect, create a corridor joining Ma'ale Adumim to Jerusalem. And here lies just the beginning of the problem. Israel's ambassador to the EU, David Walzer suggested yesterday that building a settlement was not a barrier to a final status agreement as there were plenty of examples of when Israel had evacuated settlements - Sinai and Gaza being two examples. However, as Israeli attitudes towards the final status of Ma'ale Adumim prove, evacuating a 'suburb' of Jerusalem is not quite so straightforward.
If you look at a map it is almost immediately obvious what impact building E1 would have on the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as a capital. With Ramallah in the north of Jerusalem, Bethlehem in the south, and Jericho in the east, all major Palestinian cities and hubs of commerce, E1 creates a major wedge in between these areas, and of course East Jerusalem. It is for this reason there has been such an international outcry, as the development of E1 is seen to be a major blow, if not the final blow to a two-state solution.
There has been various attempts to 'explain' that it is factually incorrect that building E1 disconnects the northern and southern West Bank from each other, or even east Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. The argument put forward is that the area beyond E1 and Ma'ale Adumim would be 15km wide, the same width as the narrowest area of Israel (the coastal plain around the city of Netanya). Plus, a road system would be created that would allow Palestinians to travel between areas of high population density, hence solving the problem of contiguity.
But this analysis is deeply flawed.
It fails to take into account that a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, to be any semblance of a viable and contiguous state, requires a piece of land that allows for growth, development and natural expansion in between cities, and particularly in and around its capital. A contiguous sovereign state should allow those that rule that state to be masters of that territory, which includes deciding how to develop areas of land beyond roads that connect two pre-existing communities together. The idea that Palestine could somehow be a contiguous territory with a chunk of land right next to its capital city being annexed to Israel is hardly the definition of contiguous. A road 'around' E1 and Ma'ale Adumim creates a huge detour nearly as far as Jericho for those wishing to travel between areas in the northern and southern West Bank, and a huge dent in the landscape, or results in Palestinian sovereign territory being connected via tunnels underneath Jewish settlements. It prevents the expansion of Palestinian East Jerusalem into the West Bank, completely stymieing the growth of the future capital of Palestine, and makes territorial contiguity even between northern and southern east Jerusalem nearly impossible to achieve.
Those who argue that north and south contiguity is not affected by the building of E1 lack the ability to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians and imagine what could be acceptable as a viable sovereign Palestinian state. They also lack the ability to imagine how a completely non-viable Palestinian state will play out for Israel in the long-term. Supporters of Israel should see the international community's outcry as the strongest affirmation of Europe and America's desire to protect Israel. For if the future of the two-state solution hangs in the balance, so does Israel's future.