The first time I came to Palestine I was nine years old. This was also the first time I saw what my parents simply called “the lights of Jerusalem” visible from the balcony of my grandparents’ house in the village of Bir Nabala. One clear summer night, my mother stood with me on the open balcony overlooking lush green hills covered in olive groves out between the mountains on the horizon. In the distance were the colored lights of a city. This, said my mother, is Jerusalem, before she proceeded into a lively recap of her childhood years trudging along those same mountains to her elementary school in Beit Hanina. While that was interesting, the lights, the beautiful lights were what caught my attention. They were so distant, yet so close and they were the lights of Jerusalem, the city we were weaned on as children, the name that cropped up in conversations and songs as we sat in our American living room and went to our American schools to always remind us that we were Palestinian.
That was many many years ago and the lights of Jerusalem do not hold that same warm nostalgia that they did before. Today, when I go out on that same balcony (now inhabited by my uncle’s family), the lights are noticeably closer, practically in Bir Nabala’s back yard. And now, knowing what I know and having seen the encroachment first hand, I resent the lights and what they stand for.
It is one thing to hear about Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and it is quite another to witness them first hand, even if from a distance. The “lights of Jerusalem” which meant so much to me as a child, are now a bitter reminder that more Palestinian land –” the land my mother and uncles would walk through to get to school –” is being stolen to ensure that Jerusalem remains under Israeli rule.
What makes this revelation even more bitter, is the sad state of our political reality. Palestinians bent over backwards to appease the United States, the Europeans and the Jordanians. They bit the bullet, they went to Amman, I’m sure against their better judgment and were shot down yet again. Even as Palestinians and Israelis sat across from each other, new settlement units were being built, or approved or planned. Even where new construction wasn’t going up, Palestinians homes were coming down, all for the sake of the settlements.
This is not about statistics, but about what an average person sees with the naked eye. And what all of us see, all of us who have lived in Palestine, who have lived in Jerusalem or are banned from even reaching it, is that Israel is not interested in any real solution. If only the likes of Mitt Romney, the ignorant and arrogant Republican presidential candidate who so self-righteously decided that it was the Palestinians who did not want peace could look out across my uncle’s balcony, he would see the difference that 30 years can make in the theft of a land.
Unfortunately, what we “see” is just the tip of the iceberg. While actual settlement buildup of structures may occupy just over one percent of the land, it is the infrastructure and the land allotted to the settlements which devours so much of the West Bank and Jerusalem. According to a Peace Now factsheet, “more than 40 percent of the West Bank is under the direct control of settlers or settlements and off-limits to Palestinians.” This is because, according to the organization, “10 percent of the West Bank is included in the "municipal area," or the jurisdictional borders of the settlements,” adding that, “These borders are so large that they allow settlements to expand many times over onto land that is completely off-limits to Palestinians.”
Furthermore, “34 percent of the West Bank has been placed under the jurisdiction of the settlements’ "Regional Councils." That is, more than an additional one-third of the West Bank has been placed under the control of the settlers, off-limits to Palestinians.
The truth is, when the Palestinians, along with the Europeans and even the Americans say that settlements are an obstacle to peace, it is a gross understatement. With the network of settlements in the West Bank and especially in and around Jerusalem, there is zero chance for a viable, independent Palestinian state to ever come into being. That is hardly an obstacle; it is a train wreck.