Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision not to renew the settlement "freeze" has left the Obama administration scrambling to save the negotiations from collapse. For the second time in two years, direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are at risk due to Israeli actions. In a misguided attempt to overcome Netanyahu's recalcitrance, the White House has reportedly offered unprecedented incentives for Israel to continue the freeze for a mere 60 days ("U.S. Presses Israelis on Renewal of Freeze"). What happens after those two months expire is still unclear, but what is certain is that the United States will have abandoned any leverage with Israel and any chance of brokering a peace accord.
Meanwhile, Israel has attempted to downplay if not dismiss entirely the impact of its settlement construction and 43-year occupation of the Palestinian territories. In a recent interview with USA Today, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren asserted that contrary to Palestinian claims, Israel's settlements would not prevent the establishment of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. He claimed that renewed construction will not "impact the map" ("What the Israeli ambassador has to say"). Yet a glance at a map of the West Bank interlaced with settlements reveals the opposite (B'Tselem West Bank Map, February 2008).
Today, Israel has more than 130 settlements and over 100 "outposts" in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem with a population of over a half million -- all in violation of international law. These heavily fortified settlements are supported by a Jewish-only road network, checkpoints, military bases, and the massive 480-mile long barrier that segments and isolates the West Bank's major Palestinian population centers from each other and from Palestinian East Jerusalem (The Separation Barrier). To support its occupation infrastructure, Israel has seized and controls vastly more Palestinian territory than the "1.7 - 1.9 percent of the West Bank" claimed by Ambassador Oren.
Israel currently controls over 59 percent of the West Bank. Under the terms of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the West Bank was divided into three zones, of which Area "C," where the settlements are located, was to remain under full Israeli control until final status negotiations were complete. Although negotiations were to conclude after five years, today, 17 years after the Oslo process began, the negotiations and settlement construction continue both seemingly without end. In addition, the Israeli organization Peace Now determined that over 39 percent of the settlements are built on private Palestinian property, a violation of Israeli law ("Israeli Map Says West Bank Posts Sit on Arab Land"). This includes large areas of major settlements like Maale Adumim and Ariel.
Underlying these figures is the human toll of the settlements and the settlers on Palestinians. Earlier this month, a mosque in the village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem was torched, the fourth in the past year ("Korans burnt in West Bank mosque attack"). Over the past decade, settlers have frequently damaged and uprooted Palestinian olive groves, harassed Palestinian farmers, shepherds, and school children. Last month, an Israeli settler shot and killed an unarmed Palestinian man in the Jerusalem suburb of Issawiya. In the ensuing protests, tear gas fired by Israeli police suffocated an 18-month-old Palestinian child ("Palestinian Infant Dies from Tear Gas Inhalation in East Jerusalem").
Although these incidents are shocking they are not isolated. As the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem has documented, settler attacks against Palestinians are not only routine, but escalating ("Settler Violence"). These acts often go unpunished by the Israeli authorities, which serves to further embolden the settlers and encourage further acts of violence. This was on display in the celebrations by settlers marking the end of the "freeze" and their increasingly brazen "price tag" policy in which Palestinian property is attacked to prevent any Israeli concessions in the peace talks or attempts by the state to curtail their activities. The settlers believe they are above the law -- Israeli and international -- and neither the U.S. nor Israel has given them reason to believe otherwise.
Washington's continued financial, military and political support for Israel's settlement policy means the end of the two-state solution. Palestinian attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict have again been undermined by Israeli politicians unwilling to negotiate in good faith and feckless American politicians unable to muster the political will necessary to broker an agreement. Like its predecessor, the Obama administration has sought to placate the most unreasonable Israeli demands at the expense of Palestinian rights. In the process, it has damaged its own attempts to improve relations with Arabs and Muslims around the world. Such a policy ensures continued conflict, not a resolution.
Six years ago, the International Court of Justice in The Hague reaffirmed that Israel's wall in the West Bank and supporting infrastructure, including the settlements, were in violation of international law. In spite of its best efforts to gloss over this reality, Israel's settlement policy remains an obstacle to peace and prevents the establishment of a Palestinian state. If the Obama administration has any hope of brokering a peace accord it must embrace international law and demand that Israel cease settlement construction now and unconditionally.