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06/20/2013

Middle East peace: Canada's silence speaks volumes

Baird palestinian blog
Canada's foreign minister John Baird, right, with his Palestinian counterpart Riad al-Malki, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, earlier this week.  (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

No news is good news.

When it’s in the troubled terrain of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the absence of news can be a good sign. But on Foreign Minister John Baird’s current trip, way too much remained unsaid.

It was good news that Baird visited the West Bank, as well as Israel, during his travels in the region, and that Canada is ponying up $25 million in aid to cash-starved Palestinians through “reputable humanitarian partners.”

The aid will go for “food, water and shelter to address the basic needs of the most vulnerable Palestinians” in the West Bank and Gaza.

It comes at a crucial time because the UN's World Food Program  and its program for Palestinian refugees have raised the alarm at rising levels of food insecurity in the Palestinian Territories. "High food prices and low wages mean that 1.6 million Palestinians don't know from where their next meal is coming," said WFP's Ertharin Cousin. That adds up to more than one-third of households, a dramatic rise from just over one-quarter in 2011.

But what of their long-term needs – such as a sustainable economy over which they have control?  The barriers to free movement for commercial as well as personal reasons and dwindling of Palestinian land only ensure a frustrating future of waiting for handouts from the international community.

Baird’s message was that “the quickest most sure-fire way to realize the promise of increased prosperity and greater security is to stop negotiating about negotiations and return to the table without preconditions.” Meaning any reference to Israeli settlements that erode a future Palestinian state.

What he didn’t mention were the so-called “facts on the ground” that have been working against a peace settlement that critics say is rapidly slipping away.

The Israel-based advocacy group Shalom Achshav – Peace Now – analysed the latest figures from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, and found an “astonishing” 335 per cent increase in settlement construction in the West Bank in the first quarter of this year, compared with the last quarter of 2012.

“Any government committed to peace would not allow, nor continue, to build settlements that inevitably harm the chances for peace,” the group said.

Peace now settlement graf
Source: Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel

Before the temporary settlement freeze that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last month, building surged ahead uninterrupted – between January and March construction of 865 new housing units began.

But in June, plans were tabled for approval of 675 new units “far beyond the separation barrier,” east of the Palestinian town of Nablus. And said Americans for Peace Now, “this would retroactively legalize 137 units that were built illegally by settlers – sending a clear message to settlers that the rule of law does not apply to them.”

Another plan for approval of 550 units in a settlement that violates Israeli law would “open the door for new construction that would expand the outpost to nearly 10 times its current size,” it added.

 “Silence in the face of such ‘settlement’-building belligerence is a green light for the most extreme elements in the Israeli political spectrum,” says Thomas Woodley, president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

That can only be bad news for the flagging peace process.

And it’s news we won’t be hearing from Ottawa.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.

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