The U.S. and the entire world do not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Every U.S. administration, Republican and Democrat, since 1967 has opposed settlement construction in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. These settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, international law and the United Nations Resolutions, particularly UNSC Resolution 446 adopted on March, 1979.
Despite America's longstanding position considering Israeli settlements illegitimate, successive administrations have done very little to stop the expansion of the settlement enterprise. Israel continues to build these settlements unabatedly, precisely because America's position is void of any substantive action.
The settlement enterprise in occupied Palestine remains a major obstacle to peace because it swallows up Palestinians land, restricts Palestinian access to natural resources, destroys the social and economic fabric of Palestinian society, breeds violence similar to what has been taking place in recent months, and above all, jeopardizes the creation of a viable, contiguous and sovereign Palestinian State.
Recent reports have unveiled that scores of American organizations and individuals are using U.S. tax loopholes to subsidize illegal settlements. Between 2009 and 2013 alone, more than $220 Million dollars of tax-exempt money was funneled into settlements and Israeli nonprofits by at least 50 American organizations acting under the guise of charitable nonprofits, known as 501(c)(3) organizations, according to Uri Blau, an investigative journalist with Haaretz.
One example of a nonprofit organization, to which Americans contribute tax-deductible donations, is Honenu. A self-described Zionist legal aid organization, Honenu offers assistance to Jewish extremists convicted of murdering Palestinians and supporting terrorism. One of Honenu's clients is Elisha Odess -- an American citizen arrested under suspicion of participation in the firebombing of the Dawabsheh house in Duma, West Bank in July 2015 that killed an infant and his parents.
American extremism in the West Bank is not unique and contributes to growing tensions between Palestinians and illegal settlers. Sara Hirschhorn, a research lecturer and fellow at the University of Oxford, has revealed that out of the 600,000 Israeli settlers illegally squatting on occupied Palestinian land, 60,000 in the West Bank are Americans (more than the number of Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq combined), making up 15 percent of the settler population.
Efrat, for example, is a settlement between Jerusalem and Hebron, that is heavily concentrated with American settlers. Many of these illegal settlers partake in organizing and executing violent campaigns against Palestinians. These include the burning of olive orchards, grossly racist vandalism, firebombing property, and public marches promoting hatred and violence chanting disgusting expressions like "Death to Arabs." Others are soliciting donations expressly to fund and support occupation activities.
American financial and physical presence in Israeli settlements, paired with the lack of appropriate action by successive administrations, not only encourages the Israeli right-wing government to build more settlements, but also erodes the prospect of a viable Palestinian State in line with the two-states solution, a cornerstone of US Middle East Policy.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, an ardent supporter of illegal settlement activity, repeatedly claims that he has built less settlements than his predecessors. Regardless of numbers, the center issue is the principle of building settlements. Netanyahu built an average of 3,000 settlement units a year in his first term (1996-2000). When he took office again in 2009, he built an average of 1,500 units per year (almost 9,000). In October 2015 alone, he approved 2200 new settlements and in recent weeks 3200 more units in area E1 of occupied East Jerusalem were also approved. E1 is particularly critical because it separates the West Bank from Jerusalem and threatens to sever the northern half of the West Bank from its southern half, compromising Palestinian territorial contiguity.
The growth in settler population across the West Bank on hilltops and inside cities increases violence. In the last decade alone, settlers have committed more than 11,000 attacks against Palestinians and their properties. The settlers' continuous presence also entrenches the occupation further, as is the case in the Palestinian city of Hebron. The city has 200,000 Palestinians and 850 settlers in their midst who severely restrict their freedom of movement, stifle their economy, and subjugate them to martial law. In fact, to protect themselves, Palestinian residents of the town surround their homes by barbwires and metal fences.
After years of impunity for the Israeli government's illegal activities and settlers who commit violent crimes, it is time the US administration held Israel accountable by taking meaningful steps to send a clear message to Israel to stop its violations of international law and U.S. policy. The United States could enhance and enforce its policy concerning labels of Israeli settlement products (issued in April, 1995), which requires "goods which are produced in the West Bank and Gaza Strip shall be properly marked and shall not contain the words 'Israel,' or 'Made in Israel.'"
Another step the U.S. could pursue includes issuing an advisory warning against travel, emigration and investment in illegal Israeli settlements. With settlers' violence on the rise, and scores of extremists positioning themselves in the settlements, taking such a step would significantly reduce tensions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Drying up the sources of funds subsidizing settlements coming from tax-exempt dollars is another essential step. The United States has in the past taken action against foreign countries and individuals accused of violating US policy and international law. In the absence of such firm action, some American citizens have taken the initiative: on December 21, 2015, a group of American citizens filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Treasury seeking to stop nonprofit groups and individuals from sending millions of dollars worth of tax-exempt donations to support illegal Israeli settlements.
There is a growing consensus in the United States that settlements are a real and serious threat to peace. According to a public opinion survey published by the Brookings Institute, 37 percent of Americans think the United States should respond to ongoing Israeli settlement construction with economic sanctions, or harsher measures. American condemnations can only do so much, particularly when one considers the proactive and tangible steps many other governments have taken to safeguard the prospects of peace and ensure the viability of the two-states solution.
Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat
The General Delegation of the PLO To the United States