The Middle East Channel

Down to the wire on settlements

Down to the wire on settlements

Jerusalem–President Obama utilized his appearance at the United Nations this week to make an impassioned call to Israelis, Palestinians and their allies to seize the opportunity to advance peace and end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The President specifically called on Israel to extend its freeze on settlement construction, due to expire on Sunday. Indeed, it is crucial that this freeze be extended if the fledgling peace process is to have any chance of success. If it is not, the Palestinians would find it nearly impossible to justify continued negotiations, with their public already skeptical of the process and having learned the danger of conducting a peace process alongside settlement expansion.

Since the first negotiations began in Madrid in 1991, the West Bank settlement population has tripled. The settlers are dispersed among over 121 settlements and about one hundred outposts. From a bird’s eye view of the West Bank, settlements occupy a very small part of the West Bank – less than 1 percent of the land is actually built-up settlements. Yet this belies the extent of their reach. The municipal boundaries of settlements are over 9 percent of the West Bank – and all these are areas Palestinians are forbidden to enter without a special permit. Their regional councils encompass vast swaths of land; fully 42 percent of the West Bank is under settlement control.

The implications for property rights, both collective and individual, are perhaps self-evident. Despite Israeli claims that it obeyed the pre-existing land laws, over 20 percent of settlements are built on privately-owned Palestinian land. Israel seized land for settlements in the West Bank in a legally and politically manipulative way, designed to circumvent legal rights such as due process as well as specific Israeli obligations during prior peace negotiations. Even those lands "legally" seized for public use are held for the settler public and are not available for Palestinian construction or economic development. One of many striking examples: the Dead Sea abuts Israel and the West Bank, as well as Jordan. While hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to the hotels on the Israeli part of the Dead Sea, Palestinians earn no income from this unique natural wonder. In fact, the entire area around the Dead Sea belongs to a settlement regional council, and Palestinians are not allowed access even for a picnic. Certainly they cannot develop tourist sites there.

But the implications of settlements extend far beyond land issues. Settlements bring with them a host of hardships for Palestinians, ranging from restrictions on movement to obstacles to sewage treatment. They dictated the winding route of the Separation Barrier deep in the West Bank which in turn causes more hardships. Perhaps the most disturbing feature of this landscape is the entrenchment of two completely separate and discriminatory legal systems in a single area. In some cases, Palestinians and Israelis literally live side by side, yet the former are governed by military law while the latter enjoy all the benefits of Israeli democracy. This discrimination is manifest in almost every sphere of life: access to justice, due process, protection from violence, planning and building codes, access to water, and much more.

Israel repeatedly promised to halt construction in settlements. This was explicitly part of the 2003 Road Map agreed with the Quartet as well as the 2007 Annapolis conference under the Bush administration. Despite this, settlements continued to grow, and at a much faster rate than the Israeli population as whole. While Israel argued that this "natural growth" cannot be stopped, it also continued to provide a myriad of financial benefits to encourage Israelis to move to settlements, including free preschools, a long school day, housing and mortgage subsidies, grants and subsidies for industry and agriculture, tax breaks and government assistance to municipalities to cover their debts. It is no wonder that in 2008 fully 20 percent of settlement growth was the result of migration from Israel proper.

The settlement-freeze imposed by the Netanyahu government ten months ago was only partial. It did however slow development in many settlements, and demonstrated to the Palestinians some good faith on the part of the Israeli government. On Sunday, this freeze expires, just as the renewed peace talks are getting off the ground. And the big question is whether Netanyahu will renew the freeze.

Everyone knows that settlements are a political, diplomatic issue, central to the negotiations – in fact, the Palestinians threaten that the talks will not get started at all unless the settlement freeze is extended. Yet settlements are also a violation of Israel’s legal obligations and a daily thorn in the side of hundreds of thousands of people who want to build a house, farm their land, travel freely, keep their children safe from violence, and have clean water and treated sewage — in short, to live in dignity. In order for the peace process to have any chance of succeeding, these issues must also have a place at the table.

Jessica Montell is Executive Director of B’Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. B’Tselem’s latest report on settlements is By Hook and By Crook.