The Palestinian-Israeli conflict may seem unbelievably complicated to most –” an endless web of historical narratives, emotional claims and bitter pasts –” but it all comes down to a simple premise: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is about land, plain and simple. Israel wants the rest of it and the Palestinians won’t go down without a fight in trying to keep the tiny sliver that remains. All of Israel’s hair-splitting in between –” insistence on a Jewish state, more security at its borders, the threat of Hamas in Gaza –” these are all minor details that divert attention away from its main goal, which is grabbing as much Palestinian land as possible before a final settlement is reached.
Settlement, consequently, is the operative word here. Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank and east Jerusalem are not a minor detail but the driving force behind Israel’s ultimate goal. Settlements mean land, Palestinian land that is, which in all cases, is meant to be part of an independent Palestinian state one day soon. That is why Israel is so adamant to one, divert attention away from the issue of settlements (note the sudden insistence on recognizing Israel as a Jewish state) and two, maintain a steady continuance of settlement growth on Palestinian land to preempt any final agreement.
One only has to look at Israeli statistics to see that this is true. Recently, the Israeli leftist group, Peace Now issued a daunting report on the rate of settlement growth during the period of the so-called moratorium –” supposedly a 10-month freeze on Israeli construction in the West Bank which ended last month. According to Peace Now, the pace of settlement growth after the freeze ended is four times its annual rate. This can mean only one thing: Israel is scrambling to build as many settlement units in occupied territory as it can. In east Jerusalem, Palestine’s future capital, Israel recently approved an additional 240 settlement housing units. Furthermore, in tandem with Israel’s construction for Jews in the city, Israeli municipal authorities are also handing demolition orders to more houses in Silwan and Beit Hanina, two important Palestinian suburbs of Jerusalem. In the end –” or at least the end of the negotiating process- Israel would have successfully embedded itself in east Jerusalem, thus squashing any Palestinian hopes of creating its capital in that sector of the city (illegally annexed to Israel in 1967). As for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, since major settlement blocs have already swallowed up some 40 percent of Palestinian land it will be virtually impossible to sustain a contiguous and viable state with these colonies in its midst.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the equation. Even the United States called on Israel to extend its freeze so that peace talks could continue. Palestinians vowed to quit the talks (which they did) and the international community at large frowned upon Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for kowtowing once again to the right-wing elements in his coalition. In the end, the freeze ended and settlers pushed full speed ahead in erecting as many illegal settlement structures as possible before political pressures dared put a damper on their activities once again.
What is so tragic about this whole situation is that the basis for the argument has been lost. The negotiating should never have been about a "temporary halt" in construction in some West Bank settlements. Neither should east Jerusalem have been excluded, given that it is also occupied territory and settlements there are just as illegal in the eyes of international law. In fact, there should be no negotiating on settlements at all. The one and only demand should be for their complete halt and subsequent dismantlement before peace talks can resume.
Yet, here we are again, defending ourselves against a ridiculous tide. Israel has succeeded in shifting the focus from the issue of its illegal building on occupied land to the Palestinians’ recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Unfortunately, everyone gets sucked in. The United States, the Europeans and even the Palestinians are all dancing around the subject of Israel’s Jewishness even though it has never been for the Palestinians to define Israel’s character. Recognition of Israel was already granted when the PLO accepted a Palestinian state on 22 percent of historical Palestine. To say the rest of Palestine (or what is now Israel) is exclusively Jewish is to shun the rights, sentiments and emotions of a refugee population still seeking to return and of the Palestinians still living within Israel’s borders.
But again, this is not Israel’s primary goal. Netanyahu may look as if his feathers are all ruffled because Palestinians just won’t approve the Jewish stamp on Israel, or because even the Pope called him out on Israel’s violations of international law. Internally however, Netanyahu and his posse are as happy as pigs in mud. While Netanyahu has the world squabbling over things like a Jewish state or Iran’s perpetual threat to Israel’s security, the land is slowly disappearing from beneath us and the green-brown indigenous mountains of Palestine are all but disguised under an ugly blanket of the foreign-looking red brick and white stone characteristic of Jewish colonies.
So, it is not enough to "slow down" the settlements. The Palestinians must not be scared to just say no. There will be no negotiations, no peace process and no recognition of Israel and its Jewishness until justice is served. The occupation –” which retranslates into the settlement enterprise and all it entails –” will simply have to end. Nothing short of this will do.