‘The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.’
Last Thursday in Jerusalem was a baking hot day. In the early afternoon, I was walking along Jaffa Road carrying a parcel to the post office. Passing the open door of a café, I caught the unmistakeable voice of America’s President, giving his speech in Cairo. It gave me a good excuse to cool off in the shade of the doorway and watch the live broadcast on the flatscreen television inside.
As the papers reported later, he spoke of seven issues. The topic of ‘Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world’ was the second; and once again, just as in his meeting with Israel’s President Netanyahu a few weeks ago, this business of settlements was a central topic.
But what is a settlement?
Settlements are housing developments, built on land in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, with the support of the Israeli government. With very few exceptions, only Israeli citizens or those of Jewish descent entitled to Israeli citizenship are allowed to live there. In other words, although this is housing built on Palestinian land, Palestinians are expected to keep out.
At the last count, there are 149 settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. They vary in numbers of residents from 300 to 30,000. In the last two months I have now visited two of the bigger kind, seen a small one from the distance of a few hundred metres, and glimpsed, from a distance, many more of various sizes, usually on the top of hills. ((This picture shows the small one, just a few hundred metres from the village of Shufa.) This means that thousands of Israelis are living in Palestine, enclosed in special areas – to which special roads are built that only they can use. The first settlements were built in 1967. The numbers have been growing ever since. And those that already exist are getting bigger.
To become a settler, you are likely either to be following a religious conviction that the West Bank is the ‘land of Israel’ and that it is your duty to live there – or you come from one of the poorer neighbourhoods in Jerusalem and are attracted by the fact that this offers you cheaper housing than the equivalent in Israel. In this case you may be an ultra-orthodox or a secular Jew. Either way, your everyday life will bring you into very little contact with Palestinians. You may be hardly aware of the village down the road, since the road you take avoids bringing you anywhere near it.
Settlements by an occupying power on occupied land are illegal according to the 1949 Geneva Convention. So Obama’s call for them to ‘stop’ is not new. But it is said in plain words. (And some of the settlers don’t like it. Reports come in of new settler violence; setting fire to Palestinians’ crops being just one example. Human rights organizations see it as a pattern.)
What must it be like to be a Palestinian who helps to build a settlement? That’s something to consider. A couple of weeks ago there was a picture in the newspaper Haaretz. It showed a Palestinian worker on his knees at prayer. The location: a building site in the settlement of Efrat (the same settlement I wrote about a few weeks ago). The building work is part of what Israel terms the ‘natural growth’ of residents’ growing families. The map of the West Bank changes, with those areas designated as settlements getting bigger and the bits in between getting smaller, and with them, this man’s human rights of freedom of movement, equality and dignity.
As Obama also said, Palestinians ‘endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.’ If a just peace is to come here, then settlement building, and the injustice it perpetuates, must end.
UNOCHA (2007) The humanitarian impact on Palestinians of Israeli settlements and other infrastructure in the West Bank. United Nations firstname.lastname@example.org
Yesh Din, Settler terror infrastructure in the West Bank Background Briefing, Yesh Din -- Volunteers for Human Rights, June 2, 2009
Ha’aretz newspaper, Thursday 28 May 09, pA2