Israeli settlement expansion is the essence of the ongoing bloody Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not least because the conflict was born when Jewish immigrants in the first half of this century took over Palestinian land by force, well-documented massacres and other such means. Israel later occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 and has since used settlement expansion as a way to consolidate that occupation and convert it into a solid and irreversible reality.
Over the years of the peace process with Israel, most Palestinians lost confidence in that process precisely because it did not stop the Israeli policy of confiscating Palestinian land for settlement building. Palestinians see settlement expansion as a way of making conflict, while the peace process is supposed to be about ending the conflict. Palestinians fail to understand how these two things can go hand in hand. Israel, on the other hand, continues the contradiction.
The main obstacle to the reaching of an interim agreement in bilateral Washington talks in 1991 and 1992 was the fact that the Palestinian delegation insisted that any agreement should include an Israeli commitment to stopping all land confiscations and settlement growth. It was only because the Palestinian leadership conducting secret talks in Oslo did not insist on that requirement, that the Oslo negotiations succeeded. Avoiding the settlement issue, as it turned out, was like leaving a land mine on the road to peace.
The Israeli policy of settlement expansion also affects other components of the conflict. First, a major part of the Jerusalem problem is tied up with settlements. That was clear in Israel’s proposed solution for East Jerusalem at Camp David last year. Israel suggested that the areas it had already taken over with settlements should become part of sovereign Israel–and the rest of the land be allotted to the Palestinian side. Settlements have to do with the allotment of water in a final agreement, because Israel confiscates land and builds settlements on major Palestinian aquifers. Finally, the building of settlements is entangled with strategic interests and security. For example, Israel has erected a line of Jewish settlements along the Jordanian border that prevents Palestinian control over those borders. The settlements that exist today effectively cut the West Bank into several divided cantons.
The Palestinians cannot by any means accept the Israeli acquisition of Palestinian territories through the settlement presence. Not only is this a flat contradiction and violation of international law and many United Nations General Assembly and Security Council resolutions, but also, if the final agreement encompasses and adapts to the presence of the settlements, what remains will never make a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. Based on historic experience with Israel, if Palestinians accept these illegal facts on the ground that were created by virtue of Israeli force, the Israeli appetite for further facts on the ground will increase. This is precisely what happened during the eight years after Oslo, in which the number of Jewish settlers in the territories doubled. It did not matter to Israel that the two sides were negotiating the very fate of those territories, and Palestinians have concluded that Israeli actions on this issue were simply in bad faith.
From a Palestinian point of view, the decisive factor on whether a final and comprehensive peaceful settlement can be reached between Israel and Palestine is based on whether Israel is willing to end its occupation in all its forms– military, economic and colonization through the settlements. As such, the basis for the solution can only be international law and Security Council Resolution 242, which reject the acquisition of land by force. If the solution is not based on these internationally accepted criteria, then the peace process so far has taught us that the solution will be based on the imbalance of power, i.e. Israeli will. The results would be equal to political suicide for the Palestinian national cause and produce a solution that Palestinians will never accept.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.