The Settlement That Broke the Two-State Solution

Ma'aleh Adumim symbolizes why Middle East peace may no longer be possible.

MA'ALEH ADUMIM, West Bank — When you drive out on the highway to the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim from Jerusalem, you're driving through big sky country. After passing Jerusalem's new Jewish neighborhoods and old Arab villages, all you've got on either side of you are the soft hills of the Judean desert. Emptiness, except for the unseen Bedouins. But very soon, you see a long, long line of beige houses and apartment buildings on the ridge of a steep hill, stretching nearly from one end of your field of vision to the other. Welcome to Ma'aleh Adumim.

The population is 40,000 -- but if someone told me it was 400,000, I'd believe it. It is huge, monumental: Long, sweeping roads lead up the hill to its entrances, and wide avenues course up and down beautifully landscaped neighborhoods built from Jerusalem stone. Ma'aleh Adumim, founded in 1975, does not look like anybody's idea of a settlement. It is truly an Israeli city, and it looks invulnerable to U.N. resolutions.

Ma'aleh Adumim is a stick in the eye of Palestinian attempts to build a state in the West Bank. And its very presence is spurring further Israeli construction: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent threat to build a sprawling, 3,500-unit housing project linking the settlement with Jerusalem has provoked expressions of outrage and distrust from Brussels and, in much more restrained tones, from Washington. The latest diplomatic skirmish was set off after European foreign ministers, in no uncertain terms, warned of the disastrous effects of the so-called "E-1 plan" on the prospects for a two-state solution.

Western diplomats fret that E-1 construction will drive a stone wedge through the heart of the would-be Palestinian state -- cutting off Palestinians' access to East Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital. But this misses the point: The presence of Ma'aleh Adumim makes E-1, or something like it, inevitable. Israel has no intention of letting this city go in any sort of peace agreement, and it's not going to let it remain as an isolated Jewish enclave linked to the capital by a thin, three-mile stretch of highway with nothing but Palestine on either side. The world has remained on the sidelines these last 37 years during the construction of Ma'aleh Adumim. It's a little late in the game to go complaining about E-1.

Besides, who says this settlement, the third most populous in the West Bank, isn't already a stake in the heart of a prospective Palestinian state, even without E-1?  "Ma'aleh Adumim was established to break Palestinian contiguity," Benny Kashriel, the town's mayor since 1992, told the Jerusalem Report in 2004. "It is Jerusalem's connection to the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley [on the other side of the West Bank from Jerusalem]; if we weren't here, Palestinians could connect their villages and close off the roads." (Kashriel declined to be interviewed for this article; the City Hall spokesman said local officials had talked enough to the media about E-1.)

This West Bank settlement functions as a suburb, or satellite city of the capital, and that's how the residents -- as well as Israelis at large -- see it. 

"It's too big to be a settlement," says Yael Benayoun, a native-born 16-year old girl shopping in the gleaming mall in the heart of town. She and her friend, Etti Lazar, also 16, say they can't imagine Ma'aleh Adumim ever ceasing to exist, like the settlements of Gaza that were destroyed in 2005, or those of Sinai that were bulldozed in 1982. "There's no place to put everyone," Lazar says. Indeed, there are roughly five times more Israeli settlers in Ma'aleh Adumim than there were in all of Gaza, and eight times more than there were in Sinai.

Nor is there a constituency in Israel for relinquishing Ma'aleh Adumim in any peace deal. The city is considered by all Israeli Jews, except those on the marginal non-Zionist left, to be a "settlement bloc" -- one close to the pre-1967 border that must be retained in a final agreement through land swaps with the Palestinians. With its large population and proximity to Jerusalem, the settlement sits snugly within the revered national "consensus" as permanently protected Israeli territory.

The birth of Ma'aleh Adumim also speaks to the support it enjoys across the Israeli political spectrum. Following the conquest of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, Israel built an inner ring of Jewish neighborhoods on the eastern part of the city to "strengthen" and "protect," in nationalistic terminology, the holy city from ever being "divided" again. The outer ring was made up of Givat Ze'ev lay to the north, Efrat to the south, and Ma'aleh Adumim to the east.

"This was the plan of the doves of the Labor Party of that time," explains historian Meron Benvenisti, who was a deputy mayor of Jerusalem in the 1970s. "To keep the land around Jerusalem and give the rest back to Jordan. Nobody was talking about the Palestinians back then."

Indeed, none of this started with Netanyahu, or even with Likud -- it started with the Labor Party, the party of peace process devotees Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, the party that later midwifed the Oslo peace accords with Yasir Arafat. E-1 didn't start with Netanyahu, either -- it started with Rabin in 1994, who, according to the Jerusalem Post, "provided then-mayor Benny Kashriel with annexation documents for the E1 area." 

In the marble-trimmed lobby of Ma'aleh Adumim's City Hall, the walls are lined with photos of Kashriel hosting prime ministers going back to Yitzhak Shamir. In one photo, Kashriel holds a pen over a map of the region, showing Rabin the lay of the land. The message is clear: This is consensus Israeli territory you're standing on -- left-to-right, decade after decade. 

The only problem people in Ma'aleh Adumim seem to have with E-1 is that it's only in the planning stages. "Bibi's bluffing. He's never going to build E-1 because of the international pressure," a real estate agent in the mall told me. "We only wish he would build it -- do you know what the construction of 3,500 more homes would do for our economy?"

Netanyahu's unfreezing of plans for E-1 was his immediate punishment of the Palestinians and the "international community" for the Nov. 29 U.N. vote to grant Palestine non-member observer state status. He has followed that with high-profile plans to build about 5,000 housing units in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements (though not in Ma'aleh Adumim, to the locals' great disappointment). A typical reaction came from the European Union's foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who said the expansion plans "seriously undermine the prospects of a negotiated resolution ... by jeopardizing the possibility of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states."

"It's nonsense," Benvenisti retorts. "People want to believe there's hope for the two-state solution, they believe it's the only game in town. Forget it."

Benvenisti has traveled a long ideological road since his time as Jerusalem deputy mayor, moving from a proponent of the two-state solution to an advocate of a binational state encompassing Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, with full political equality for Jews and Arabs. In the early 1980s, he founded an organization that tracked the growth of West Bank settlements. "I started when there were 20,000 settlers and said that when they reached 100,000, the settlements will be irreversible," he says. The number passed 100,000 before Oslo, and today there are upwards of 350,000 -- not counting the Jewish residents of East Jerusalem, who number another 200,000. Benvenisti, once dismissed as a congenital pessimist, is now seen as a realist who was ahead of his time -- a prophet of doom whom history seems to have proven right.

"You can't build a Palestinian state in the West Bank -- the settlements [and road infrastructure built for them] have permanently cantonized the territory," he avers. "Yes, E-1 will certainly cut Jerusalem off from Ramallah in the north and Hebron in the south -- but they're already cut off."

He keeps going, ticking off the other fractures on the land where Palestinians hope to build their state: Jenin and Nablus are similarly cut off, he says. Netanyahu's plans to build a settlement in southern Jerusalem will sever the city's links to Bethlehem. "All this talk about a two-state solution, about a viable, contiguous Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem -- who's kidding whom?"

I ask Benvenisti where he would rank Ma'aleh Adumim among settlements on a scale of strategic obstructionism. "There all the same," he replies. And despite half a century of international wailing, none of them looks vulnerable.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images


Anatomy of an Air Attack Gone Wrong

In rural Yemen, a botched attack on a terror suspect kills 12 civilians and destroys a community.

SANAA, Yemen — The villagers who rushed to the road, cutting through rocky fields in central Yemen, found the dead strewn around a burning sport utility vehicle. The bodies were dusted with white powder -- flour and sugar, the witnesses said -- that the victims were bringing home from market when the aircraft attacked. A torched woman clutched her daughter in a lifeless embrace. Four severed heads littered the pavement.

"The bodies were charred like coal. I could not recognize the faces," said Ahmed al-Sabooli, 22, a farmer whose parents and 10-year-old sister were among the dead. "Then I recognized my mother because she was still holding my sister in her lap. That is when I cried."

Quoting unnamed Yemeni officials, local and international media initially described the victims of the Sept. 2 airstrike in al-Bayda governorate as al Qaeda militants. After relatives of the victims threatened to bring the charred bodies to the president, Yemen's official news agency issued a brief statement admitting the awful truth: The strike was an "accident" that killed 12 civilians. Three were children.

Nearly four months later, that terse admission remains the only official word on the botched attack. A Washington Post article, published on Dec. 24, reports that "U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing airplane, that fired" on the vehicle. But the people of al-Bayda still have received no official word as to who was responsible for the deaths -- the United States, which in the past year has accelerated its covert targeted-killing program against Yemeni-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; or the Yemeni government, whose new president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, was installed with Washington's help.

The information blackout on terrorism-related killings is not limited to al-Bayda. The United States has revealed only the barest details of its 400 estimated strikes on alleged militant targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia over the past decade. The attacks, carried out by the CIA and the Pentagon with unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), manned warplanes, and cruise missiles, have reportedly killed at least 2,800 people, according to sources such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) in London. Yet in most cases, Washington refuses to even confirm or deny any role in the strikes, much less acknowledge whether any civilians were killed. With the United States leading the way on obfuscation, allies such as Yemen have no qualms about following suit, leaving no one accountable when attacks kill the wrong people.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is reportedly drafting new rules on targeted killings, the majority of which have been conducted on his watch. But though these new rules might include more oversight, it's likely that the program will remain shrouded in secrecy. For the people of al-Bayda, just a pinprick on the map of innocents lost to the "war on terror," policy changes without more transparency mean nothing.

During a trip to Yemen for Human Rights Watch in October, I spoke with four people, including Sabooli, who witnessed the al-Bayda attack. The witnesses drove 10 hours round-trip to see me in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, after Human Rights Watch decided it was too dangerous for me to travel to al-Bayda, an area outside the government's control with a known al Qaeda presence and a reputation for kidnappings.

Without visiting the scene of the attack, we were unable to determine what kind of aircraft carried out the strike and whether it dropped a bomb or fired missiles. But the witnesses provided some important clues, including the presence of what they said were drones, during the attack. Only the United States is known to operate drones in Yemen, home to what Washington calls al Qaeda's most active affiliate.

The attack took place near Radda, a hilltop city roughly 100 miles southeast of Sanaa. For more than a year, drones had been circling day and night over Radda and surrounding areas, and one or two had been flying overhead on the morning of Sept. 2, the witnesses said. Shortly before 4 p.m., three of the witnesses said, two warplanes also swooped into the area. (The Washington Post article notes that some witnesses saw three planes.)

"I heard a very loud noise, like thunder," said Sami al-Ezzi, a farmer who was working in his fields in Sabool, a farming village six miles from Radda. "I looked up and saw two warplanes. One was firing missiles."

Arriving at the scene, about 1.5 miles from Sabool, local residents found a horrific sight: The battered Toyota Land Cruiser that had served as the daily shuttle between Sabool and Radda lay on its side in flames. All the dead and injured were Sabool residents returning from Radda.

"About four people were without heads. Many lost their hands and legs," said Nawaf Massoud Awadh, a sheikh from Sabool who saw the attack. "These were our relatives and friends."

Sabooli's mother was in the vehicle because her husband had taken her to Radda to see a doctor. Other passengers were farmers who had gone to Radda to sell their crop of khat, a legal and widely used stimulant in Yemen. Only two passengers, both men, survived. Both lost their ability to walk, the witnesses said.

The witnesses who met me in Sanaa brought along videos showing the Land Cruiser overturned and in flames, near two craters created by the strike -- one immediately behind the vehicle and the other nearby. Bodies lay on the ground in contorted heaps.

"Push! Push!" "Open the door!" local residents are heard crying. Seeking to extinguish the flames, they urged, "Bring sand!"

One video shows a man pulling a Kalashnikov assault rifle from the wreckage and throwing it aside. (This may seem like a smoking gun, but it's common for men to be armed with assault rifles in tribal areas of Yemen such as al-Bayda that are outside government control.)

The Sept. 2 strike was the seventh in al-Bayda that local or international media had attributed to U.S. or Yemeni forces since January 2012. That month, a band of militants from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took control of Radda for 10 days -- some accounts say with help from loyalists of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who were trying to spoil Yemen's political transition. After being forced out by local tribal leaders, many militants reportedly disappeared into the surrounding villages.

The attack's reported target was Abdulraouf al-Dahab, an alleged al Qaeda militant whose brother led the January takeover of Radda. Dahab is from Manasseh, a village about 14 kilometers from Radda. The attack took place as the shuttle approached an intersection where one road led to Sabool and the other to Manasseh. But witnesses, as well as unnamed government officials quoted by media, said Dahab was not inside the Land Cruiser. Nor was the SUV even traveling to Manasseh; it was completing its daily round trip between Sabool and Radda. A Yemeni newspaper reported that Dahab was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Radda six days later, but some residents of the Radda area say he is still alive.

Media reports, quoting unnamed Yemeni officials, attributed the Sept. 2 attack to U.S. drones; others to manned warplanes. Two witnesses told me they saw warplanes fire munitions that they thought were bombs and missiles. Two witnesses also told me they saw a black tail fin near the burning SUV. (A black tail fin is typical of a Hellfire, a U.S. missile that can be fired by either drones or jet fighters.) The shrapnel that witnesses brought us from the site, however, is more consistent with the type of damage caused by a bomb -- which would point to an attack by manned jets. But even these scraps of information are inconclusive: Yemen's air force has fighter jets, while the United States reportedly flies F-15E Strike Eagles (as well as armed and surveillance drones) over Yemen from a military base in Djibouti.

On one of the videos I reviewed, two men are heard saying that a warplane with "two exhausts in the back" -- presumably twin engines -- fired munitions at the vehicle while other aircraft were circling. The men's agitated exchanges underscore the confusion in Yemen over who is conducting such attacks.

"It's our government; it's our government," one man says.

"It's America; it's America," the other responds.

Media reports quoting Yemeni officials as saying Yemeni warplanes carried out the attack also provide no clear answers. A classified U.S. cable from January 2010, released by WikiLeaks, revealed that Yemen has previously covered up for U.S. targeted killings gone awry. As the cable relates, Saleh, president at the time, was talking to Gen. David Petraeus, who was then the head of U.S. Central Command. The two officials were discussing a botched airstrike in late 2009 that killed 41 civilians in southern Abyan governorate. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," said Saleh.

* * *

Yemen has a long, painful history in the U.S. war on terror that includes being the site of the first known U.S. drone strike against a terrorist target. The attack, 10 years ago, killed reputed al Qaeda leader Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, along with five other alleged militants. The United States carried out its next targeted killing in Yemen in 2009 and to date has carried out at least 52 drone strikes and other air attacks there, killing hundreds, according to TBIJ. But lack of access to the attack areas, nearly all of which are too dangerous for international media and investigators to visit, makes it impossible to verify the figures. The same difficulty exists for verifying casualties from U.S. targeted killings in Pakistan and Somalia.

The office of Obama's counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, declined to comment for this article, saying it does not speak about specific operations. The Yemeni government referred Human Rights Watch to a recent speech in which President Hadi lauded U.S. drone strikes but did not respond to specific questions about the al-Bayda attack.

U.S. officials, including Brennan, argue that the United States has authority under both domestic and international law to conduct targeted killings because the country is at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. International law permits targeted killings of enemy fighters in battle zones and of people posing an imminent risk to life in law enforcement situations. However, U.S. officials have failed to explain how they make this determination in areas that are far from a traditional battlefield.

Washington also says that the vast majority of those killed are militants and that civilian casualties are "exceedingly rare." But, citing national security, it refuses to disclose how many militant suspects and civilians it has killed, or the legal basis for placing suspected militants on a kill list. Nor will it detail what steps it takes to minimize civilian casualties or investigate attacks in which civilians are killed.

Governments have an obligation under international law to investigate and provide redress for unlawful attacks. In Afghanistan, NATO members -- including the United States -- have recognized the value of compensating civilians for loss of life or other damage, even when the attacks are lawful.

There is no such formal system in Yemen, leaving the people of Sabool with little more than anger. And with neither Yemeni nor U.S. authorities taking responsibility for the attack, the villagers blame both countries.

* * *

The deaths from the September attack have devastated Sabool, a cluster of 120 brick-and-mud homes that residents say has no electricity, no paved roads, no schools, no hospitals, and no jobs apart from khat farming.

"Seven of the victims were breadwinners. Now we have 50 people in our village with no one to care for them," said Awadh, the local sheikh. "Who will raise them? Who will educate them? Who will take care of their needs?"

Sabooli, the farmer whose parents and only sister were killed, said six of his 10 remaining siblings are still too young to fend for themselves. "When I enter our house, my younger brothers still ask, 'Where are my mother, my father, and my sister?'" he said.

Sabool's residents accuse authorities of refusing to take responsibility for the deaths from the start. When distraught villagers tried to bring the dead to the city morgue in Radda, Republican Guard troops blocked their entry for two hours. Then the morgue refused the bodies. The Sabool villagers spent the night on the streets of Radda, fending off stray dogs from the corpses spread out on the beds of pickup trucks. The next day, Radda shopkeepers joined the Sabool residents in blocking the main street in Radda and threatening to bring the bodies to President Hadi's doorstep in Sanaa.

Within hours, Sheikh Sinan Garoon, the deputy governor of al-Bayda, arrived to appease the Sabool residents the tribal way, with 95 Kalashnikovs and 15 million Yemeni rials -- about $70,000 -- in burial money. He also promised further compensation, villagers said.

"We denounce what happened," a video obtained by Human Rights Watch showed Garoon telling the angry demonstrators. "We will give you the guns.… If you demand blood money, it will be given to you."

From Sanaa, Hadi announced he would form a special committee to investigate the attack. But as of late December the panel was not in place, and talks on compensation beyond the initial $70,000 had stalled. "They were toying with us," said Awadh.

"We've had four meetings with Sheikh Garoon, but he said that the government is busy nowadays with more important issues," Sabooli said. "It's as if we live in a jungle and the attack was on wild animals -- no one cares. Both the Yemeni government and the American government killed my family and my villagers. Both of them should be brought to justice."