Unsurprisingly, the newly resumed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians stalled yet again, this time over the highly-charged issue of Israeli settlements, which despite past commitments, Israel has continued to expand. On December 24, the two sides met for the second time since the Annapolis peace conference in November, but came out of the meeting empty handed, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat describing the meeting as “very difficult.”
No kidding. Even if we put a pin in all the other issues that have constituted major bones of contention between the Palestinians and Israelis such as the refugee problem, Jerusalem and borders, Jewish settlements alone are explosive enough to blow any negotiations to smithereens.
However, in order to fully understand why both sides are so adamant in their positions when it comes to West Bank settlements (and that, by the way includes those illegally built in east Jerusalem), it is imperative to understand their significance, to both Israel and the Palestinians.
Following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel almost immediately adopted what was known as the Alon Plan, which advocated the establishment of Jewish settlements in areas with so-called “security importance”. While these initial settlements were built in areas where Palestinian populations were sparse, such as the Jordan Valley and areas outside Jerusalem, this quickly changed in the late 70s under the more aggressive Likud government, which accelerated settlement expansion into areas near Palestinian populated regions in the heart of the West Bank, not only for so-called “security considerations” now, but also for ideological reasons. These were based on the premise that the West Bank and Gaza Strip (or what Israel calls Judea and Samaria) are part of the Zionist dream of Greater Israel, ostensibly the biblical right of the Jews.
Thus, the Yesha Council of Settlers was established in the 1970s to oversee the return of Jews to what they claim to be their biblical homeland. Since then, all Israeli governments have either openly encouraged settlement expansion, encouraged it under the table or at best, turned a blind eye. Even in the so-called “peace years” during which the Oslo Accords were signed and late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously shook hands with President Arafat, settlement expansion never ceased. According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, between 1993 and 2000, the number of settlers in the West Bank increased by 100 percent.
Not all Israelis in Jewish settlements are there for ideological purposes –” one Yesha Council estimation puts only half the number of secular Jews who moved to West Bank settlements for ideological purposes, while the rest made the move for economic reasons. Religious Jews, who constitute around 35 percent of the settler population, according to the same source, almost all move to the settlements because of their “Jewishness”.
The result of this monstrous movement is that it has created a population that cannot easily be swayed by economic enticements to move out of their West Bank homes. The majority of settlers are there because they believe this is their birthright, that the land of “Judea and Samaria” was granted to them by God. No compensation package can ever match that.
Furthermore, the settlers hardly stand alone in their views. If it were not for ongoing government endorsement, the settlement project would have gone under years ago. This week’s failed Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were focused on the east Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa (or Jabal Abu Gneim), which Israel has so insolently announced it would expand. According to Israeli Peace Now leader Yariv Oppenheimer, Israel will allocate $25 million from its 2008 budget for the expansion of Har Homa and Maaleh Adumim settlements in east Jerusalem alone.
Besides, the more Israel expands and builds in the already illegal West Bank settlements, the more de facto they become. Once these red-topped invasive constructions are built and people moved into them, they become a reality much harder to reverse. In the final analysis, Israel is vying for as much West Bank land as possible –” through settlement expansion mostly –” before any final settlement is reached with the Palestinians.
For the Palestinians, however, settlements mean something entirely different. Invasive, encroaching and offending, Jewish settlements are like cancerous growths in the midst of what Palestinians hope to be their future state.
International law agrees with the Palestinians. International humanitarian law prohibits the occupying power to transfer citizens from its own territory to the occupied territory (Fourth Geneva Convention, article 49), while The Hague Regulations prohibit the occupying power to undertake permanent changes in the occupied area or confiscate private property in occupied territory. UN Security Council Resolution 465 (1980), which was unanimously adopted, made it clear that “Israel’s policy and practices of settling parts of its population and new immigrants” in the Occupied Territories constitutes “a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East”. The Security Council called upon Israel to “dismantle the existing settlements and in particular to cease, on an urgent basis, the establishment, construction or planning of settlements in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem.”
International law aside, Palestinians rightfully view the settlement movement as Israel’s plan to grab as much Palestinian land as possible, not to mention the hostile nature of many armed settlers towards the Palestinians. While the actual settlements take up approximately three percent of West Bank land, because of the extensive network of settler-only bypass roads, fences and other restrictions imposed on Palestinians, the settlements dominate 40 percent of the area of the West Bank. Furthermore, the separation wall, which cuts through a major portion of the West Bank has been designed to include and annex 56 settlements to Israel.
This leaves the Palestinians with a severed, discontinuous and settlement-pockmarked geographical entity, hardly raw material for a viable Palestinian state. Palestinians continue to demand that Israel dismantle all settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which they have claimed as their future capital. According to the US-brokered roadmap, Israel is to halt all settlement expansion and dismantle any settlement outposts, both obligations which they have failed to meet.
This is why negotiations, no matter how “serious”, will never bear fruit as long as Jewish settlements plague the Palestinian territories. Not only does their presence deny many Palestinians access to their own land, to water resources and to other Palestinian areas, they are built in a way that severs any contiguity between Palestinian territories, making any geographically viable future Palestinian entity virtually impossible.
If negotiations are ever to lead to lasting and substantial results, settlements cannot be part of the equation. It is as simple as that.