Settlement Freeze is the way out

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If there was one issue that the Mitchell committee seems to have zoomed clearly on in its report has been the issue of settlement activity. In the clearest call yet from a committee made up of senior western and NATO leaders, the committee called for a clear and unambiguous freeze to settlement activity.

According to Palestinian and Israel press reports, the Mitchell committee went very far in it is statement in exposing the need for an end to settlement activity as a condition to the end of violence. A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the Government of Israel freezes all settlement construction activity. Settlement activities must not be allowed to undermine the restoration of calm and the resumption of negotiations.

It is not clear where the present Palestinian resistance will lead, but already leading Palestinians are staying that if it results in the freeze of settlements as a step in the direction of eventually dismantling them, then the conflict might have finally turned a corner.

Ever since the Israeli occupation in 1967, no issue has angered Palestinians, and delayed an eventual peace with Israel more than the building of exclusive Jewish settlements in contradiction to international law. 

When the secret peace talks between Israel and the PLO produced the Memorandum of understanding one of the glaring issues that were absent in what has become known as the Oslo Agreement was that it didnt call for an end to settlement activity. Leading negotiators like Haider Abdel Shafi refused to continue so long as the settlement issue was not dealt with directly.

When Palestinian journalists questioned Israeli officials about the wisdom of settlement activity during the peace talks, officials, including Shimon Peres said that Palestinians must look at the bigger picture and that the peace talks will produce a permanent solution in which such details will no longer be important. That was in the first year after the famous White House handshake. But as the Mitchell report states  except for a brief freeze during the tenure of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, there has been a continuing, aggressive effort by Israel that increase the number and size of settlements.

And as was the case when former US Secretary of State James Baker was greeted every time he visited the area with a new settlement, the Mitchell committee reports that On each of our two visits to the region, there were Israeli announcements regarding expansion of settlements, and it was almost always the first issue raised by Palestinians with whom we met.

For Palestinians the continuation of land confiscations and the expansion of settlements, or opening settlement roads during what was to have been a peace process is the proof that Israel was not genuinely interested in peace. 

The centrality of the settlement issue is not limited to international reports and Palestinian public discourse. It is the most obvious evidence of the daily confrontations, which are primarily based around these settlements. Except for Hebron, daily life in the center of Palestinians cities and towns is free of violence. Only the outlying areas that are close to Jewish settlements are the subjects of confrontations.

Israelis refuse to accept that settlements are a major source of daily anger and prefer to believe the claims of their leaders that the issue is the result of Palestinian incitement and parents sending their children to be killed for propaganda gains. The Sharon/Peres government has insisted that Palestinians unilaterally stop their violence before negotiations can take place. Palestinians suggested that negotiations should continue without conditions.

Now the Mitchell Committee has presented a new equation for the restart of negotiations. Total freeze of settlement activity and the total cessation of Palestinian resistance. Palestinian minister Yasser Abed Rabbo has said that the Palestinians accept the
Mitchell recommendations as is even though he stated that Palestinians disagree with a number of its conclusions. Israel has refused to accept this package deal preferring to pick and choose the items they liked. The time is ripe now for the international community to give teeth to such resolutions. Settlement activity must be frozen immediately. This is the only way out of the quagmire.

Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.

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