For most Americans, the word “settlement” conjures up images of the Old West, of a small outpost with a post office, general store and a saloon. A dot on the map. A threat to no one.
The settlements in the West Bank of Palestine, however, are quite another story. Dotted across the territory occupied by Israel after the 1967 Middle East War and not recognized as legal by any international body, the settlements are developments of 5,000 to 30,000 Israeli citizens. While many look like the gated communities of South Florida or Southern California, others are concrete high-rise cities rising out of the desert floor where there are thousands of homes, stores and even industrial parks. No Little House on the Prairie here.
Some settlements, like the Ulpana expansion of Beit El, which is being evacuated this summer, under protest, at the behest of the Israeli Supreme Court, are built on private Palestinian land. All, however, are built on lands that have been owned and farmed by Palestinians for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Typically the settlements are built on higher ground, towering over the Arab villages around them and from which they take land when they wish to expand. These actions have been justified by the declaration of the lands as “Area C” under the Oslo agreements. The agreements, which were meant to be a five-year temporary solution when forged in the 1990s, are still in effect and give the Israeli military full authority over the occupied territories and the right to expropriate land and destroy Palestinian homes, fields and buildings as desired, virtually without challenge.
A visit to Kefr Al Dik, a village 20 miles west of Tel Aviv, provides a glimpse into the meaning of settlements and occupation. It lies at the foot of the hill occupied by the Arial settlement. Without a modern drainage system, Arial’s waste flows untreated into the streams upon which Kefr Al Dik traditionally relied for water for its homes and olive groves. All the water in the West Bank is under the control of the Israeli military. Arial is granted a ration of 200 liters a day per citizen; Kefr Al Dik is granted 30 per resident each day.
When I was there recently, the town had been notified that the Israeli military was taking another 30,000 acres for settlement expansion, and the children of my host had arrived home the previous week to find dozens of soldiers guarding the bulldozer that was in the process of demolishing the water well and shelter adjacent to the family olive grove.
As heart-wrenching as such stories are, the issue of the settlements goes far beyond personal tragedy. The settlements are not random. They surround Arab villages on all sides, separating village from village and all of the Palestinian land from any external border. If the settlements continue or, more to the point, are not removed, there will be no possibility of a contiguous state.
Moreover, one can imagine from looking at the map of settlements that what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in mind for his “unilateral Palestinian state” is a fragmented set of Palestinian settlements connected by underground roads and all bordered by the state of Israel.
Kind of like what we in the U.S. did to the Native Americans.
However, this is not the 19th century, there is an international human rights community and Israel is not surrounded by two oceans but by numerous Arab states that, in the midst of their own struggle toward democracy, are not likely to see the creation of a internal client state whose borders, water and trade are controlled by Israel as a just or friendly move.
We as Americans have a great deal at stake in the fate of the settlements and Israel. The “apocalyptics” may welcome the inevitable conflagration that would likely follow a lopsided resolution of the Israel/Palestinian question. The rest of us, those who value life, peace and the justice upon which peace must be based, have a responsibility to press for a better resolution.
Marilyn Katz is the president of MK Communications in Chicago. She is a member of the national steering committee of J Street, which describes itself as a pro-Israel organization that supports a Palestinian state.