Author: Eva Orossová (Institute of International Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague)
In July 2013 Israeli-Palestinian peace talks started again after a nearly five-year break. US President Obama delegated John Kerry, his Secretary of State, to mediate new negotiations and to lead the Israelis and Palestinians towards compromise in the form of a two-state solution. However, it seems that even after eight months of meetings and drafting peace agreements Obama’s administration will not be able to move the whole thing on. Reason? Quite simple: Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
This essay will prove the question of Jewish settlements, their legality and their role in Israeli-Palestinian relations and also discuss why they pose the main obstacle in the peace process.
Let’s begin directly with the settlements and the controversies they raise. The settlement policy followed the Six-Day war in 1967. In this war, Israel captured the territories of West Bank and East Jerusalem and started to build new homes for the coming Jews. The evolution of settlements was rambling, dependent on the Head of State’s policy and Middle Eastern conflict development. With the time passing by, the amount of settlements continuously rose up to the today’s number of more than 200 settlements (The Economist: 05/04/2013). Most of them are situated in the so called “Area C” (see picture) which was created by the Oslo II Accord in 1995 and where Israel has full military and civilian control. The foundation of a new settlement is mostly justified by an impending archaeological dig or by a creation of a military zone where Jewish soldiers have to restore peace and security. The problem is that the soldiers are moving Arabs out and arresting all who do not want to go, while the Jews may stay and even more of them are invited to come (The Economist: 05/04/2013). Jewish settlements are then protected by walls and surrounded by security zones that Palestinians are not allowed to enter. So are Palestinians losing their land, despite the Oslo II Accord bounded Israelis to gradually transfer the control over Area C to Palestinian jurisdiction.
Most of the world considers the settlements to be illegal. First, they are a violation of the UN Charter. Israeli government does not respect Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and the creation of a sovereign, independent and territorially contiguous state while permitting the foundation of new settlements and, as some of the foreign politicians say, supports an occupation of Palestinian territory (Haaretz: 01/20/2014). Second, the settlements are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention which bans any occupation of another country’s territory and defines the status of “protected persons” among whom Palestinians may be counted. According to Articles 47-78 of the Convention, protected persons may not be forcibly deported by the occupier and, according to Article 33, their property may not be damaged or seized. Even if the Israeli soldiers argue that they operate against terrorists, again, according to Article 33 of the Convention, they may not punish, here: move out or arrest, people who has not personally committed the crime.
The current situation of Palestinian people living in the West Bank is uneasy. They live as stateless people, with only limited autonomy over a small part of their territory, and no right to vote for the Israeli government that exercises ultimate control over their property and their lives. They are continuously moved out of their homes and their residential and work-related structures are being dismantled. They have no access to water which is provided only to Jewish settlements. Scores of small EU-funded projects, ranging from wells to solar panelling, have been destroyed by Israeli soldiers (The Economist: 05/04/2013). On the other hand, Palestinians are unable to cooperate with Israelis although the Israeli government is ready to make compromises. They insist on the pre-1967 line as the basis of their future state with East Jerusalem as its capital; they demand a release of Palestinian prisoners, a complete cessation of settlement construction, the imposition of PA sovereignty over Area C, a halt to Israeli military operations in PA-controlled territories, reunion permits for some 15 000 Palestinians, reopening of the Gaza border crossings, lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip and permission to return for Palestinian terrorists who were deported to the Gaza Strip and Europe after they sought shelter from the IDF in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002 (The Jerusalem Post: 04/03/2014). They insist on all these conditions although they know some of them are inacceptable for Israel. The main problem is security. There are continuous Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel killing or injuring civilians. From that reason it is unimaginable for Israel to free or stop arresting terrorists. Moreover, Palestinians reject Israeli proposals which include economic cooperation and a transfer of 90% of the West Bank territory to Palestinian jurisdiction with a compensation of the remaining 10% in the form of new territories connected to Gaza Strip or in the North of the West Bank territory (Lidové noviny: 02/28/2014).
Israel’s reaction is severe. Even President Shimon Peres, who expressed many times his disagreement with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s approval for the construction of new settlements, stated that “Palestinians are the victims of their own mistakes” (Al-Jazeera: 12/30/2012) and supported Netanyahu’s position in the peace process. Netanyahu argues that it would be impossible now to remove all Jewish settlers from the West Bank, which is a reasonable estimation. Netanyahu also criticized European countries, such as Great Britain, France, Spain or Italy, that summoned Israel’s ambassadors to hear a rebuke concerning the construction of new settlements, and accused them of “a one-sided and unfair attitude toward Israel” (Haaretz: 01/20/2014).
However, Israel’s policy of settlements construction might also be seen as a policy of colonisation whose aim is the future annexation of Area C. It is quite remarkable that the office of Israeli Housing minister was given to Uri Ariel, a man who lives in a small settlement community of Kfar Adumim in the West Bank. It is also an outstanding coincidence that all Jewish settlements are tied to Israel with a proper network of roads from which Palestinian homes are excluded. Besides this, it is just the Area C where most of the West Bank’s natural resources are concentrated. In the past five years the number of Jewish settlers rose from 296 700 in 2009 to 341 400 in 2012 (The Jerusalem Post: 09/17/2013) and it is still increasing (see picture). The logic is clear. More than 341 000 Jews against only 150 000 Palestinians, most of whom are Bedouins and farmers, create a strong Jewish majority of educated people that will more or less rule the territory.
Mr Kerry’s self-imposed deadline for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement approaches on April 29th. However, it does not seem that any agreement will be signed. Both sides of the conflict are unwilling to retreat from any of their conditions. Even Mr Kerry starts to be sceptical about the negotiations which are, by his own words, at a “critical moment” (Al-Jazeera: 04/03/2014). He admitted that there are limits to what the US administration can do to push the parties together (Al-Jazeera: 04/03/2014) and stressed that it is now the task of Israeli and Palestinian people to make “real compromises and hard decisions” (Al-Jazeera: 11/06/2013). He also suggested an extension of the peace talks until the end of the year (The Economist: 02/27/2014).
The problem is that all sides stubbornly keep on promoting their position. Palestinians even said that they would agree to pursue the negotiations only if Israel accepts all of their conditions (see above; The Jerusalem Post: 04/03/2014). Also Netanyahu seems to get angry. He is prone to continue the talks, but he too accuses Palestinians of “creat[ing] artificial crises (…) [and] trying to run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace” (Al-Jazeera: 11/06/2013). Moreover, even the US lost their patience and, in this very complicated situation, stopped to back their main ally and supported the Palestinians instead. They stated that they consider the settlements to be illegitimate and that there is no deal that the Palestinians recognised the settlements in return for peace (Al-Jazeera: 11/06/2013). But what will Israel do if left alone by its main supporter? Surely not accept all Palestinian conditions or remove the settlements…
It is highly probable that even Obama’s administration will not break through the Israeli-Palestinian issue and restore peace in the Middle East. If it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, sooner or later the question of Jewish settlements is raised. And this is exactly what happened to Kerry’s negotiations, too. The dispute over the settlements and the related control over the West Bank territory posed an unsolvable obstacle to the process which has now, confronted with its deadline approaching, come to a halt. Neither a compromise, nor the possibility to prolong the talks until the end of the year are bringing much hope, as both the parties protect their own interests and instead of searching for solutions they are taking out further and further accusations. Moreover, it seems the situation will not improve in the near future because of the US leaving the initiative on the parties rather than make any resolute action. – And, therefore, raises the question of US role in the world.
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