February 16, 2009

Expanded Israeli settlements on the West Bank

Settlement on West Bank - click for larger imageIsraeli Settlement on West Bank

In the last few weeks, while everyone's attention has been focused on the yet unproductive Egyptian-brokered talks between Israel and Hamas over Gaza, the Israeli army has delineated more Palestinian land for Israeli settlement expansion on the occupied West Bank. Israeli settlements in areas that the Palestinians consider part of their future state are a sensitive and controversial issue.

Over the years, Israeli governments have made commitments to stop the development of new settlements in the occupied territories. The presence of Israeli settlers is an obstacle to the eventual return of occupied territory to either the original owners or the Palestinians. This was the case with the return of the Sinai to Egypt and the withdrawal of the Israelis from Gaza in 2005, and it will be an issue with the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

The Sinai, Gaza and the Golan issues pale in comparison to the ramifications of the settlements on the West Bank. The Israelis are split over whether they should ever return all of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Many believe that the lands are rightfully part of Israel - those who favor this position refer to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria. They also support the expansion of Jewish settlements in the area to provide in-depth security to Israel. Not only do settlements create an Israeli presence in the territory, protection of these Israeli citizens requires the continued presence of Israeli troops.

The Israelis that support the principle of "land for peace" favor the return of almost all of the West Bank for the creation of a Palestinian state. There are three blocs of settlements that almost all Israelis believe should remain under Israeli control, mostly for security reasons. These Israelis also are willing to redraw the borders slightly to provide compensatory land to the new Palestinian state.

Palestinian President Mahmud 'Abbas (Abu Mazin) warned that continued settlement expansion would halt peace talks. Unfortunately, Palestinian actions have robbed 'Abbas of any credibility. When the Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005, they uprooted many settlers by force. It took only hours after Israeli troops pulled out of Gaza for attacks to begin. Since 2005, over 8,000 rockets and mortar rounds were fired at southern Israel, and continue to this day.

Many Israelis look at the West Bank and wonder why they should remove the almost 300,000 settlers and turn the area over to the same people that refuse to stop shooting at them from Gaza. Remember, Israel is as narrow as 7.5 miles in areas adjacent to the West Bank.

'Abbas said recently that peace talks will only resume after Israel declares a freeze on new or expanded settlements. If Benjamin Netanyahu becomes the next prime minister, the talks are over. Netanyahu favors expansion of the settlements and has gone on record saying that talking to the Palestinians is a waste of time. He favors the "no-solution solution." See my earlier article, Israel-Palestinians: The "no solution" solution.

Site of roposed new settlement noted in red

The proposed new settlement area sits on the main road between Jerusalem and Hebron. It is very near the existing settlement of Efrat, home to 1,600 families. The new settlement will house as many as 2,500 additional families over an area of 425 acres.