Jewish sages say that the first rain of the season is especially significant. After months of hot and dry summer weather, everyone in Israel always welcomes the water from heaven.

Apart from a spattering of raindrops a few weeks ago, the first autumn rain fell on Jerusalem last Wednesday evening, accompanied by booming thunder and bright flashes of lightning. Breaking the usual weather pattern of storms coming in from the western Mediterranean coast, the thick clouds rolled in from the Red Sea via the southern Negev Desert. Interestingly enough, very little precipitation fell on Tel Aviv, Haifa or other parts of the coastal plain, while large amounts poured down on Jerusalem, Hebron and Beersheba.

The rain came just hours after the Labor party decided to quit the broad unity government headed by Ariel Sharon. “It was a sign of the Almighty’s happiness that Sharon finally got rid of Shimon Peres and other Oslo proponents,” opined one rabbi on national radio the next morning. He then pointed out that the coastal plain is Labor’s political heartland, while Jerusalem, Beersheba and Jewish settlements in and around Hebron are heavily pro-Likud.

Labor leader Binyamin Ben Eliezer said he pulled his party out of Sharon’s coalition for economic reasons. The Defense Minister complained that the 2003 state budget grants too much financial aid to controversial settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, and too little money to struggling Israeli communities. Most pundits say the real reason was his Nov. 17 race for Labor leader against Haifa’s dovish mayor and an equally leftist Knesset member. Both internal opponents, leading Ben Eliezer in the polls, had been demanding that Labor ministers vacate Sharon’s cabinet table for many months.

If nothing else, Labor’s departure has brought the issue of the disputed settlements into the international spotlight once again. Governments around the world echo most Labor politicians in terming them “obstacles to peace.” With world leaders and media outlets regularly talking this way, the average citizen of planet Earth might be excused for thinking that the notorious settlements are comprised of millions of radical Jews who have illegally occupied vast stretches of Arab lands.

The truth is slightly less dramatic. Around 200,000 Israelis live in some 160 communities (the numbers vary depending on what criteria one uses to define a settlement) in the disputed areas. Most are located inside of Judaism’s biblical center, the hills of Samaria and Judea north and south of Jerusalem – a small parcel of land that averages about 80 miles in length and 30 miles in width. A majority of “settlers” are hardly the gun-toting, right-wing religious zealots featured regularly in the media. Instead, they work in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv by day and reside in bedroom suburbs like Maale Adumim, Efrat and Ariel by night (nearly one-third of all “West Bank” Jewish residents live in the three growing towns).

It seems clear to most people that Jewish settlements have gobbled up most of the land in question, tiny as it is. Not so. But this false impression is understandable since Israeli Labor party leaders, unable to accept that their cherished Oslo “land for peace” process is truly dead and buried, make regular headlines with anti-settlement statements. Now they are predicting the settlements will be the biggest issue during next year’s national elections.

Israeli human-rights groups add girth to this impression by issuing periodic reports slamming the contested communities. A typical one was published by the Betselem group on May 13. The title said it all: “Land Grab: Israeli Settlement Policy in the West Bank.” The report revealed that an astonishing 42 percent of “Jordan’s former West Bank” is controlled by “illegal” Jewish settlements. In other words, nearly half the land has been “grabbed” from its rightful Arab owners by power-crazed Israeli settlers and their political backers!

This is a startling fact that seemingly confirms the worst impressions swirling around the market of international public opinion. At least until one examines the following paragraphs which give the lie to the report’s sensational title.

It turns out that around 40.3 percent of the horrendous 42 percent of territory in settler hands is totally undeveloped land, meaning no Jewish homes, farms or factories are located there. True, 35.1 percent of the area is under the jurisdiction of six regional Jewish councils, and another 6.8 percent under local settlement control, meaning Arab development is restricted, if not banned, in those zones. However most of the land is hilly, rocky terrain – not eminently suitable for settlement, farming or other civilized activities. Arab shepherds are allowed to use portions of the undeveloped land to graze their animals.

So it turns out that a mere 1.7 percent of the land that has supposedly been gobbled up by greedy settlers is actually used by them, while the rest is completely open and under the control of various councils and communities that are subject to Israeli government supervision. This is why Ehud Barak was able to offer almost every inch of this land to Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000 without batting an eye.

The truth is that the infamous settlements, which are supposedly behind the collapse of Sharon’s unity government, sit on less than 2 percent of the disputed territories. Although a few of them straddle Arab towns, obstructing Arab growth in their direction, this is hardly a monumental land grab by anyone’s standards – unless one agrees with the likes of Bin Laden and Saddam that Jews have no right at all to live in their ancient spiritual heartland.

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