The illegal Israeli settlers and settlements in occupied Palestinian territories have always been the most dangerous and explosive aspect of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The settlement process creates direct tensions and friction because it involves confiscation of Palestinian land and the settlers themselves are among the most hostile to Palestinians. In addition, the settlements and settlers’ presence create a reality that is prejudiced against the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state.
There have been many different proposals for how to deal with this problem in final status negotiations. These range between the complete removal of settlements and keeping them in place. Keeping settlers and settlements in turn is an idea that has been proposed in two ways. The first is that settlements remain under Israeli sovereignty but are swapped with land from the west of the 1967 borders, i.e. Israeli territory. The other is keeping settlers as citizens of a future Palestinian state.
The first is not a new proposal and was entertained in the Camp David negotiations, where Palestinians accepted the principle of a swap of territories on an equal-in-quality-and-quantity basis. The other has never been officially discussed, and is a little strange from a Palestinian perspective because settlers are among the most hostile to Palestinians and it’s difficult to imagine them living at ease in an independent Palestinian state.
Nevertheless, the possible Palestinian position on such an alternative is going to be based on several conditions, most importantly that any settlers that would stay would have to live under Palestinian jurisdiction and abide by Palestinian laws. Second, any Israeli settlers staying in the Palestinian state cannot expect to keep the land they are living on now. Most of this land belongs to Palestinian individuals who are still alive and carry deeds of ownership, and it’s difficult to imagine a solution that does not involve returning their land to them.
The third condition would be a limitation on numbers, because Palestine will need the space and resources for returning refugees, and their needs must be prioritized.
Despite the difficulty in envisaging such a solution, it is constructive to try to get rid of the influence of the current hostile reality when trying to imagine future solutions, simply because these solutions will occur in a context of peace, rather than the current context of conflict and ongoing violence. Accordingly, one should be able to imagine Israelis living in Palestine and abiding by the jurisdiction of the Palestinian authority. In fact, we have witnessed periods in our history when Palestinian Jews lived normal and friendly lives among Palestinian Muslims and Christians in historical Palestine. This was before the beginning of hostilities that started and were aggravated with the massive immigration of European Jews and their accompanying activities to take control of the country. This ultimately led to the expelling of 800,000 Palestinians who became refugees, and they and their descendants are today’s refugee issue.
An issue such as what to do with individual settlers can be a minor one. It can be treated with tolerance if the major issues of the conflict are dealt with in a way that does not compromise legitimate Palestinian rights, at least as guaranteed by international legality, in particular in the form of UN Security Council resolutions. These, of course, include a complete end to the occupation of 1967 and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, in addition to a solution to the refugee issue. In a context where these international resolutions are met, the Palestinians might be able to tolerate the idea of keeping a reasonable number of Israeli settlers, especially since Israel will have to accept the return of a certain number of Palestinian refugees within the context of a final status agreement.