TWO VIEWS | Settlements impede peaceful solution

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Are the West Bank settlements an obstacle to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or are they exaggerated as a problem issue created by those who seek to cast blame on Israel? I recently returned from Israel where I tried to answer this question for myself.

Sadly, I concluded that the settlements themselves have become a problem that makes it increasingly difficult to resolve the larger question of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

While the settlements’ defenders often claim that their construction beyond the Green Line is limited, taking place only within existing Jewish communities, unfortunately this is not the case. Settlements are being built well beyond existing blocs on land not owned by the settler communities, and many experts believe that these new outposts are deliberately placed to weaken the viability and contiguity of a future Palestinian state.

Despite being illegal even under Israeli law, these outposts are not removed. Instead, Israeli army guard posts are established to protect the settlers. Soon power and water lines are established, roads are paved and mobile homes are replaced by permanent residential buildings, schools and parks. Technically illegal though they may be, these outposts are nevertheless abetted and retroactively sanctioned by the State of Israel.

A case in point is Efrat, a Jewish settlement located in the West Bank just south and west of Bethlehem. Founded in 1983, the settlement is considered by Israel to be within the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.

I stood at the site of a huge new apartment complex under construction on a hillside well north of the initial settlement area, with only open Palestinian land between the two. While the construction is considered a part of Efrat and a function of what the Israeli government calls “natural growth,” it is not actually contiguous to an existing settlement. If Efrat were annexed to Israel in a peace agreement, the major Palestinian city of Bethlehem would be isolated from the southern West Bank. It would be left stuck between Israeli settlements in Efrat to the south and East Jerusalem to the north.

It is said that the Israeli government respects historic Ottoman law, if not more current international law under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and will not allow settlement construction on land unless it has been abandoned by the former owners. But the construction of Israeli roads and barriers often make the land owned by Palestinian farmers inaccessible. Thus, it is abandoned only because the owners are unable to reach it or are afraid to do so.

Today it would be possible to establish a Palestinian state on the West Bank in the area east of the Green Line, with land swaps to enable some Palestinian villages in Israel to be part of a new state and many large Israeli settlements on the West Bank to become part of Israel. But delays in negotiations work against this happening, as more and more settlements are built. Perhaps that is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared that no agreement would be reached on his watch.

The current violence is a situation that requires law enforcement in the short term but must be addressed at a more fundamental level by, for one thing, providing opportunities for Palestinian youth. The violence is not a reason to put off serious negotiations and attempts to reach a two-state solution — in fact, it is just the opposite. Palestinians in the West Bank need to be able to live decent lives, with economic opportunity and the rights of unrestricted movement and self-determination. Only in such circumstances are hateful and extreme acts of violence likely to decrease.

There is hope. New Palestinian businesses are forming, higher education opportunities exist at Birzeit University in Ramallah and construction of the new planned city of Rawabi is nearing completion. President Barak Obama can move the situation forward by setting the parameters of a negotiated agreement and urging the parties to accept them. These parameters would make clear which settlements would be part of Israel under an agreement and clarify the areas in which continued settlement expansion is unacceptable and damaging to peace.

We need to create a path forward so that Israelis and Palestinians can live separately, but in peace, as neighbors. For Israel’s own sake, occupation must become separation and democracy.

Jon Kaufman serves as the Bay Area advocacy co-chair for J Street and is the immediate past president of the J. board.

Jon Kaufman
Jon Kaufman

Jon Kaufman is the Bay Area advocacy co-chair for J Street and a former board president of J. He lives in Oakland.