Israeli settlements: Obstacle to peace or part of future agreement?

Time and again, Israel allows settlements to be built on Palestinian land

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“No peace with settlements,” says Mahmoud wearily. A West Bank resident living near Beit Sahour, he has been under occupation for all of his 24 years. He has lived through the second intifada (uprising), Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, three Gaza wars, multiple attacks, and ongoing construction of the West Bank barrier. His fatigue is mainly due to the continued presence of settlements and Israeli forces on land that belongs to the Palestinians.

“Jews can live here, why not? They did before,” he says. “But many of the settlements are on land that doesn’t belong to settlers. Why should they stay? What about the original owner who wants to go back to their land?”

The post-1967 settlements are symbolic of Israel’s claim to the land that it calls Judea and Samaria, as well as its victory in the Six-Day War. Acting under religious and economic motivation, Jewish settlers support the military occupation by establishing facts on the ground - the primary ‘fact’ being that this land belongs to Jews and will never be conceded.

Privately-owned Palestinian land not used for farming becomes state land for settlements. The new settlement proposed in the E2 area near Gush Etzion, for example, would directly impose on the Palestinians of nearby Dehaishe refugee camp who bought the land in the hope of one day living there.

Time and again, Israel allows settlements to be built on Palestinian land, hampering the feasibility of a two-state solution. Are we headed toward a two-state solution with land swaps, or a one-state solution? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems hell-bent on being non-committal to either.

At least some West Bank residents see the conflict differently. “The land doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the land,” said Rabbi Menachem Froman in the documentary “A Third Way — Settlers and Palestinians as Neighbours.”

He was an influential figure in the West Bank, uniting settlers and Palestinians as equally important forces in the struggle for peace. Since his death in 2013, his legacy lives on with both settlers and Palestinians keeping his dream of peaceful coexistence alive.

David Ha’ivri is a settler living in Kfar Tapuach, near Ariel in the West Bank. He believes in equal rights for Palestinians, although he opposes their right to sovereignty: “Israel should have one law in all of its territory west of the Jordan river to the sea, with Israeli minorities allowed to integrate and be loyal citizens of Israel. Jews and Arabs have potential for mutual respect and appreciation.”

He is against much of Israeli government policy, not least ‘anti-terror’ initiatives: “The road blocks and security barrier are the result of Israel’s policy to go soft on real terrorists at the expense of everyone else.”

While many bring up the reduced number of suicide bombings since the barrier’s construction began, Ha’ivri is not convinced: “East of the barrier, over the same period, terror attacks against Jews also dropped. There must be another explanation or combination of factors.”

Samer, who like Mahmoud is a Beit Sahour resident, speaks of the majority of Palestinians suffering from psychological trauma. Some of this is due to violence by Israeli settlers and soldiers, but Ha’ivri says this aggression is only from a handful of the soldiers and 400,000 settlers in the West Bank. What must be more damaging to the Palestinian psyche is the fact that whatever the Israeli side does, it gets away with it.

It is not so much the nature or frequency of Israel’s crimes, but rather the impunity. Settlements, for example, flout international law, but are continually constructed and expanded. In Hebron, after settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians and was himself killed, the Palestinians were punished most heavily, especially with the closure of Hebron’s Al-Shuhada Street.

Racial discrimination is something that any government should at least attempt to overcome. In Israel’s case, though, it is so much the modus operandi that it would take years to root out even if the majority of the Knesset (parliament) wanted to.

It barely makes a difference whether a left- or right-wing government takes the reigns. The message on the right is that the Palestinians are too dangerous to negotiate with. The message on the left is that Israel needs to negotiate with Palestinians so it is not stuck with them forever. Either way, disdain toward Palestinians render the chances for real, lasting peace slim.

Now that Netanyahu is serving another term in office, U.S. President Barack Obama is once again paying lip service to the two-state solution that Netanyahu so strongly denounced as an impossibility while he is in power.

Presumably using that denouncement to win more votes, Netanyahu has changed his tune post-election: “I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change.” However, this stance is barely different to the opposing Zionist Union’s position regarding a negotiated peace agreement.

Netanyahu’s attempted u-turn on the two-state solution has fallen on irritated ears. Ha’ivri, for one, wishes the prime minister would stick to one idea: “It pains me that the leader of Israel isn’t clear and straightforward. It seems sneaky and isn’t respectful to the position.”

With the Palestinian struggle looking like a vast, unsolvable issue, there are only small causes for rejoice, such as the existence of Arabs and Jews like those in the documentary “A Third Way.” They are sources of hope, love and empathy in an otherwise adversarial system.

At weekly demonstrations in the West Bank, and in the minds of Palestinians worldwide, there exists an unshakable spirit in the face of unshakable policy. They might not uproot settlements in this grassroots way, but they show that they too are here to stay. Mahmoud is certain about how the Palestinians will achieve their freedom: “By our belief.”

Hayley Pearce is a freelance writer and independent journalist covering travel and Middle East culture and politics. She currently lives in Berlin but is a frequent visitor to the Levantine region. In the future she plans to teach there while writing about and filming events in the region.

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