'Settlements' is sure to be a key word during the Elders’ visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories. The issue of the 'settlement freeze' is on the world's agenda, as part of the efforts to start real negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. But why is the issue of settlements seen as a stumbling block on the road to peace?
As an Israeli Jew who strongly believes that the only way for us to fulfil the Zionist dream of a Jewish democratic state in the land of Israel is by establishing a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, I see the ongoing construction in the settlements as our own ‘March of Folly’.
In the 43 years of occupation, Israel has established 120 settlements (and another 95 'illegal outposts') in the West Bank. These are home to 296,700 settlers. In East Jerusalem, 192,000 Israelis reside in another 12 Israeli neighbourhoods in occupied lands unilaterally annexed by Israel.
In order for the two sides to live in peace, Israel will have to stop occupation and allow the establishment of a viable Palestinian state in the occupied territories. Most of the settlements will have to be removed. As Israel continues to develop the settlements, this becomes harder and harder.
A few weeks ago Peace Now arranged ‘a press conference in the sky’. We invited some 50 journalists, Members of Knesset and public opinion leaders to a flight over the West Bank. It was one of our ways to convey the message to the Israeli public that the settlements are already very large and deep inside the territories – and that we are therefore close to midnight for the two-state solution.
Peace Now's 'Facts on the ground' map project
In parallel our sister organisation, Americans for Peace Now, launched a new iPhone app with a map of all of the settlements and detailed information about them so that everyone can see and understand the importance of the issue.
The following graph shows the number of new housing units that started to be built in the settlements between 1973 and 2009, according to data from Israeli’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Graph showing settlement construction from 1973 to 2009
As we can see, even after the beginning of the Oslo Process in 1993, when Israel and the Palestinians agreed to start a process that should have ended with a two-state agreement by 1999, Israel continued to build in the settlements. In fact, since the Oslo accords, the number of settlers has more than doubled (from 116,000 in 1993 to 296,700 in 2009).
Settlements and the peace process
Every new brick laid in the settlements is a message to Palestinians that Israel has no intention to leave the occupied territories. The Palestinian leadership loses whatever is left of its credibility with the Palestinian public whenever construction continues. For them, it is almost impossible to continue negotiations with Israel while construction is going on.
Some might argue that this means that Israel doesn't really want peace. I think that this is a very simplistic explanation.
Israeli public opinion has shifted dramatically in recent years. When late PM Rabin started the Oslo process in 1993, there was a lot of opposition in Israel against it (led by then MK Netanyahu). Even in the Labour Party's platform the words "Palestinian State" had still to be mentioned. As years went by, many of those who strongly opposed the two-state solution, including Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni (maybe even Netanyahu himself), joined those who advocate it. Polls consistently show that the majority of Israelis are ready to give up on the settlements and pay the price of peace, only that they don't believe that the other side will agree.
So why does Israel continue to build in the settlements? I think that psychologically the Israeli public feels that we have already agreed to give up on most of the settlements. It’s as if we did our part: now we are waiting for the Palestinians to do their part and agree on the final status issues. Until the Palestinians can move forward on this, settlement construction seems like ‘business as usual’ for most Israelis.
I believe that this attitude ultimately harms Israel’s interests. Peace Now's Settlement Watch project tries to challenge this sense of complacency, collecting information about settlement construction so that it can be heard and debated in the Israeli media.
I wish the Elders a good trip. I am sure that the fact you are here will once again raise this issue of settlements and help to explain to a tired public the urgency of peace.
Hagit Ofran directs the Settlement Watch project of the Israeli Peace Now movement (Shalom Achshav). Widely recognized as Israel’s foremost expert on West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements, Hagit is responsible for monitoring, scrutinising and analysing Israeli construction and planning of settlements in the West Bank.
Her work includes travelling daily throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem monitoring settlement-related developments, commissioning and examining aerial photos of settlements and scrutinising official Israeli documents.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.