A year or so after the signing of the Oslo accords, I was one of a group of Palestinian journalists who were invited by Shimon Peres to his office at the Israel Foreign Ministry in West Jerusalem. When questions focused on continued settlement activities, the then foreign minister tried to deny them. When a journalist from the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center presented documented facts about land confiscations, he reluctantly admitted the fact, but said that Palestinians should not worry about these issues since they will soon have sovereignty over their own state and therefore these issues will become inconsequential.
Fifteen years later, Palestinians are understandably adamant that they will not be tricked again into accepting the continuation of Jewish settlement activity in occupied territory. For ordinary Palestinians as well as negotiators the demand that Israel completely freeze all settlement construction (including for so-called natural growth) has become the real test of whether Israel is serious about peace.
The international community has repeatedly asserted that the building of Jewish settlements on lands occupied by Israel in 1967 for Israeli civilians is illegal and in clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In 2004, the International Court of Justice at the Hague yet again affirmed that the settlements were illegal when considering an appeal against Israel for building a wall inside occupied territory. All settlement construction, including for "natural growth", is clearly rejected by the roadmap agreement that Israel signed and the Knesset approved.
The Bush administration, followed by President Barack Obama's team, publicly supported the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, defining it as an American "national interest". It follows that continued Jewish settlement in areas slated for a Palestinian state -- that obviously in practice undermine prospects for a two-state solution -- is contrary to US national interests. It should be no surprise then that Palestinians are pleased that Washington is finally serious about at least this one crucial aspect of the conflict. If the present administration continues in the same vein, many Palestinians may be more patient in allowing negotiations to run their course in order to secure an end of occupation.
Whether negotiations are swift or prolonged, the one specific aspect that worries Palestinians most is how settlements, these "facts on the ground", will shape the final outcome. Their concern is not limited to the fact that Israel routinely demands concessions from the Palestinians in return for agreeing to give up settlements. During the Bush administration, these facts on the ground became "a reality" that "Palestinians must take into consideration during Israeli-Palestinian negotiations." A 2004 understanding between Bush and Sharon is said to include an agreement that the US will support Israel's demands to keep hold of the settlement blocs closest to the green line.
In 1967, after Israeli troops occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, the UN Security Council in the preamble to resolution 242 called the occupation "inadmissible". Today, 42 years later and after hundreds of illegal settlements have been built on occupied Palestinian land, the issue of freezing construction in the settlements has become a defining issue for peace in the region. While negotiations require concessions from all parties, mistrust and unfulfilled commitments have been the main obstacles to peace in the region. Palestinians need to address Israel's security concerns and the Israelis need to understand Palestinian aspirations for freedom and statehood.
Continued settlement construction provides a concrete reminder to Palestinians that the world community is unable to enforce this simple but crucial prerequisite for peace. The authors of the roadmap placed obligations on both sides. Fulfilling these obligations will go a long way toward creating a better environment for talks that can lead to peace and security for Israelis and independence and freedom for Palestinians.
Published 13/7/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Daoud Kuttab is an award winning Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.