Fred & Gloria Strickert http://walkinjerusalem.blogspot.com/
“So what’s the biggest change since your year here fifteen years ago?” That’s the question everyone seems to ask. The answer is simple, in one word, “Settlements.” Of course one-word answers are never simple, and they can never really be explained in just one word.
If you’ve paid any attention to news about the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, you know that settlements have become the most serious obstacle to peace.
The settlement problem has been around for forty years now. And everywhere in the world people agree it’s a problem. Every day in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, there are articles and editorials that argue for a cessation of the settlements. The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem recently produced a study on Israeli settlement policy and they titled it By Hook and by Crook, if that gives you an idea of what many Israelis feel about settlements. But settlement expansion has been official Israeli policy for four decades so that half a million people now live in settlements.
Settlements are Israeli housing developments built on Palestinian land—and therefore obstacles to peace. They should not be viewed as economic opportunities, like an American family farm succumbing to urban sprawl. Settlements fall under the ministry of defense. They are a problem because this “settled” land constantly creates new “facts on the ground” and becomes more difficult (or impossible) to negotiate over. The strategic placement of settlements divides up the West Bank like Swiss cheese so that the viability of a possible future Palestinian state becomes a major challenge. As far as present and future security, it doesn’t make sense because Israeli soldiers are stationed to “protect” settlers and thus control the entire West Bank while becoming flashpoints for violence. And in many cases, settlers themselves are the violent ones harassing their Palestinian neighbors.
Two necessary clarifications are in order. “Settlements” might imply that this is merely the development of unused land. In many cases, Palestinian homes are removed to make room for settlements, also olive groves uprooted and farms destroyed. Also some play with the term “illegal settlements.” By international law, all settlements—building on occupied lands—are illegal. The Israeli government argues that settlements are legal because they are built for “security” purposes—while ironically making Israel less secure. The government sometimes refers to renegade settlers as “illegal” suggesting incorrectly that government sponsored settlements are “legal.” They are all illegal.
The official U.S. government policy for all these years—one administration after another—has opposed Israeli settlements. Yet American diplomats, one after another, have winked at public declarations of building slowdowns (while settlement expansion moves full speed ahead). In schizophrenic fashion, Democrats and Republicans alike in congress tend to vote 95 % in favor of the settlements. But American foreign policy under Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama has generally opposed Israeli settlements. Financially Americans make all this possible, by billions of dollars in annual foreign aid to Israel (that frees up Israeli budgets to fund settlements), by U.S. backed loan guarantees, and by IRS tax-exempt status for American donations to settlements.
So settlements are illegal. Settlements are a provocation. Settlements are the biggest obstacle to peace. But the U.S. government has remained timid and painted itself in a corner so that they are powerless to do anything but to say as they did this last week, “We are disappointed.”
Settlement expansion has gone unchecked for forty years. So what’s new? How is this a change from fifteen years ago when we were here?
What’s new is the proliferation of settlements in East Jerusalem. That’s Arab East Jerusalem. That’s East Jerusalem where we live and where we work. I walk by settlements on the way to the old city, we drive by them when we go to the grocery store. They’re everywhere. They are like armed camps in the midst of civilian neighborhoods. Or as one Israeli writer put it last week, they’re an excuse for independent militias to run free and unchecked.
And over the next few weeks and months there will be more and more of them. That is the significance of Sunday’s diplomatic failure.
In 1995, when looking north from Bethlehem,we viewed a beautiful forested hillside named in Arabic Abu Ghneim. The property was once considered part of greater Bethlehem & owned by families from Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, and also a few Jewish families. But following the 1967 war, Israel annexed this area to Jerusalem and made plans to build a settlement. Ironically, when the UN tried to stop construction, it was the Clinton administration that voted along with Israel and Micronesia against 135 nations and then used its veto power to override UN opposition. So because of a failure or American resolve, today this Jewish settlement now called Har Homa numbers 12-15,000 residents standing within the Jerusalem municipality.
According to Israeli law there is no opportunity for Palestinians to build on such land because this land has been declared “Israeli state land.” According to Peace Now (an organization founded by former Israeli generals & now very critical of Israeli government settlement policies) 93 % of land in Israel (and one third of Arab East Jerusalem) has been declared “state land” which is available only for full Israeli citizens to purchase and build upon. So it’s off limits for Palestinians, including 200,000 Arab residents of East Jerusalem. That probably does not make any sense for people who are used to property transactions as being economic. Israelis can live anywhere they want. Palestinians are highly restricted.
It is not unusual for Israel to declare as “state land” East Jerusalem property where Arabs are currently living, paving the way for the expulsion of these residents and for settlers to buy the land from the government and to move in. So in the Silwan area on the eastern slopes of the Kidron Valley & south east of the old city, hundreds of Palestinians have been evicted in the last decade & replaced by Jewish settlers. Knowing they are not welcome, the settlers hire armed guards (often untrained) which results in a recipe for disaster—such as the shooting several nights ago of a Palestinian by an off-duty guard and the subsequent demonstrations (and such clashes will only cause more harm and solve nothing).
On Sunday, with attention on Washington and the peace talks, dozens of buses headed to the West Bank in support of the settlements, and demonstrations were held to support East Jerusalem settlements. Police were barricading various streets in East Jerusalem where we normally drive. Over the next weeks and months, it has been suggested that there will be a major land grab. The more Jewish residents in East Jerusalem, the more difficult it will be for peace negotiators to establish East Jerusalem as part of the proposed Palestinian state, let alone be its capital. So the longer the delays, the greater the obstacles to peace.
If you want to follow one story, remember the name Sheik Jarrah. You’ll be hearing a lot about it in the coming months. Sheik Jarrah is an area north of the old city that was home to high Palestinian society in the 1940s and 1950s. A proposed settlement here has been disputed for some time. This morning’s paper announced—interesting timing !--an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that opens the door for new settlers. The ruling centers on the fact that there were Jews living in several houses in Sheik Jarrah in the early twentieth century—living side by side with Arabs peacefully. In the 1948 war, as in all wars, people get out of the way of the violence. These Jewish residents fled to west Jerusalem while many Arab residents of west Jerusalem fled to east Jerusalem. From 1948 to 1967, a divided Jerusalem kept Jews in the west and Arabs in the east.
The UN refuge commission resettled Arab families from west Jerusalem in the then vacant East Jerusalem buildings, and now sixty years have passed. Although the pre-1948 Jewish residents are no longer involved, these houses have been declared as “state property” and a wealthy American who has never lived in Israel has bought the property for the settler movement. The case has been held up in court because of disputes about whether the houses were owned or merely rented in the pre-1948 period. According to the morning paper, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the settlers and these Palestinian families will now have to leave to make room for the settlers. Of course by Israeli law, these Arab families have no recourse to their families’ pre-1948 property in west Jerusalem, nor any compensation. But they are to be evicted for other Israelis whose families were not even around in 1948.
The goal is not just for a house or two, but, once the foot is in the door, for a large housing complex of over one hundred units.
The bottom line is that such settlement activity leads neither to peace nor the security of Israel.
Once again, it is important to stress that a stance exposing the problems of Israeli settlements is consistent with official U.S. policy, international law, and world opinion. It is consistent with President Bush’s 2003 Road Map. It is consistent with the Obama administration’s approach to the peace talks. It is also listed as one of the basic issues needing to be resolved for a just and secure peace between Palestinians and Israelis according to the ELCA Peace Not Walls Campaign.
For Israeli opinion critical of the settlements see:
For an American Jewish view see: