Israeli Land-grabs and Settlements: More Than Merely 'Counterproductive'

09/02/2014 01:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2014
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Israel's confiscation of nearly 1,000 acres of Palestinian land this week is not only "counterproductive," as the US State Department has termed it. It's a flagrant violation of international law, made even worse by its scale -- it's the largest land-grab by Israel in 30 years, according to Peace Now. It's all the more outrageous that it is being billed as a response to the abduction and murder in June of three Israeli teenagers, which suggests that this land-grab is a form of collective punishment.

The US administration, concerned about this move's impact on the moribund peace process, has urged the Israeli government to reverse its decision. But if a peace process is to have any chance of success, its sponsors, and the USA in particular, must recognize that the settlements are more than a diplomatic obstacle. Continued settlement activity violates international law, entails daily violations of human rights and humiliations for Palestinians, and sabotages prospects of reaching an equitable and enduring resolution to the conflict between the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups.

Israel's land-grab and dissection of the West Bank including East Jerusalem has had a devastating impact on the lives of Palestinians. Around 40 percent of West Bank has already been classified by Israel as "state" land. And the settlements, built on this illegally seized Palestinian land, are for Jews only.

Discrimination against Palestinians on grounds of nationality and religion is the dominant feature of Israel's settlement policy. While settlers speed through the West Bank on well-maintained highways, Palestinians are largely forbidden to use these "bypass" roads built on their appropriated land and are forbidden to enter settlements, except on occasion as laborers. Settlers in the West Bank live under Israeli civil law and are given generous financial incentives by the state to live in the occupied territories. Meanwhile their Palestinian neighbors are governed by draconian Israeli military orders and are subject to trial by Israeli military courts.

The settlement project is not only unjust; it is illegal. According to the statute of the International Criminal Court, Israel's policy of settling its civilians in the West Bank violates international humanitarian law and is even considered a war crime. Given the toll settlements have had on the civilian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), this characterization of Israel's policy is apt.

The confiscations, seizures and appropriations of land for settlements, bypass roads, the fence/wall and related infrastructure have resulted in the forced eviction of thousands of Palestinians. This has placed barriers on their access to health care, education, work and family. It has also significantly cut the income of the occupied population whose land and resources lost to settlements can no longer generate income. According to the World Bank, these restrictions and obstacles are crippling economic development.

Discriminatory water policies and practices deny Palestinians their right to water. Likewise, the construction of settlements destroys Palestinians' homes, crops, agricultural lands, and livelihoods. And Palestinians also suffer regular vandalism and violent harassment from settlers, who are rarely held accountable for their actions by the Israeli authorities.

The illegality of settlements can in no way excuse deliberate attacks against settlers by Palestinian armed groups. Amnesty International unreservedly condemned the abduction and murder in June of Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, all students at yeshivas (religious schools) in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. But these deplorable crimes cannot justify collective punishment and disproportionate measures such as punitive demolition of homes, confiscation of land, or the widespread and prolonged closures, curfews and other restrictions on movement to which the Palestinians are constantly subjected.

A genuine freeze on settlement would be a good first step toward ending the settlement project. But human rights violations will continue until there is full compliance with international law. This includes a permanent end to the construction or expansion of Israeli settlements, a dismantling of the fence/wall inside the West Bank, and the evacuation of civilian settlers from the occupied territories.

The US administration maintains that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a top priority. To make this a reality, they need to recognize that to achieve any lasting result, the USA must learn from its own mistakes and those of previous administrations and stop treating the peace process as a human-rights-free zone.

Bringing human rights and international law into the equation, including by recognizing that settlements must go, could help lay the foundation for a just and enduring peace. The heavy toll of the latest round of fighting in Gaza and Israel make it clear that this is a challenge that the USA and others involved in the peace process can no longer afford to evade.