Israeli strategists are not mistaken in identifying the settlement project as an intrinsic component in defining the territory of the Jewish state. Historical precedents, from the 1947 UN Partition Plan through to the "Clinton Parameters" of December 2000, have reinforced their belief that by manifesting a presence–no matter how small or how unjustly–on Palestinian land, eventual sovereignty is achieved, recognized and rendered irreversible.
The "tool" of settlement building, rather than that of diplomacy, is in fact Israel’s first choice in creating, preserving and expanding a sovereign presence. As such, its seemingly extraordinary cost–in terms of political "awkwardness" as well as financial investment–is readily justified.
In the two years following the signing of the Oslo Declaration of Principles, the Rabin government presided over West Bank land confiscations averaging 220 dunums a day and totaling 170 square km. Although the current rate is less steep, the expansion has continued. The territory that today falls under settlement control is nearly half the total West Bank area.
By June 2002, the terms denoting areas A, B, and C, as outlined in the Oslo Accords, no longer referred to anything other than a historical geopolitical map. New territorial divisions in the West Bank have taken shape and follow distinctive patterns. Checkpoints now confine the non-Jewish population to immediate built-up areas; beyond those, settler and Israeli military exclusivity reigns. In many cases this effectively confines villages of 6-7,000 inhabitants to land areas of less than 10 percent of their ownership and places the remaining 90 percent within the military remit of the settlers and the Israeli army. In doing so, the exclusion policy need not rely on the legally tiresome and slow methods of expropriation, and so leaves little by way of a paper trail and affords total deniability in the unlikely event of some international objection being raised.
Settlements in the larger blocs (where over 77 percent of settlers reside) are now effectively being annexed to Israel with bypass roads, checkpoints and military installations forcibly preventing Palestinians from accessing these areas. Meanwhile, outposts (79 percent of all settlements with only 10 percent of all settlers) are being openly adopted as a primary tool of political and military strategy, in what is an effort to further dismember all remaining Palestinian land.
There are today at least 214 individual illegal settlements in the West Bank and a further 21 in the Gaza Strip. Of a total of 398,000 settlers (the exact figure is higher due to uncounted outpost dwellers), 197,000-200,000 reside in occupied East Jerusalem, nearly 9,000 in the Gaza Strip and the remaining 192,000 in the West Bank beyond Jerusalem. Seventy-nine percent of all settlement sites are either unpopulated (e.g. industrial zones) or home to under 1,000 settlers.
All Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are illegal under international law, which holds that the transfer of a civilian population into or out of occupied territory is a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention. UN Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967), 446 (1979), 452 (1979) and 465 (1980) all call upon the Israeli government to cease and desist from any settlement activity.
Since 1967, the international community has consistently voiced its disapproval and even condemnation of the Israeli settlement activity. However, with such statements amounting to little more than lip-service to international law and human rights, illegal settlement building has continued apace. Members of the international community and especially representatives of its primary political powers, bear a responsibility for the upholding of ratified international law, for the upholding of human rights, and for the application of all due pressure on fellow members who are willfully in breach of these standards. The damage wrought by Israel’s ongoing settlement activity stands as testimony to the failure of concerned parties to thus far properly meet those responsibilities.
The pretext of providing "security" to the tiny percentage of Israeli citizens living in small and remote outposts (0.8 percent of the population), is being exploited apace in a race to fragment, by use of settlements and bypass roads, the geographical remnants of Palestine, reducing it to a series of smaller and smaller cantons, each with its economy, transport and communications externally controlled by Israel.
Adding Israel’s separation wall to all these both secret or clearly stated and public plans for settlement expansion and land appropriation, Palestinians have only one route to go: to fight for their land rights. Palestinian land rights on Palestinian land amount to an existential struggle. The non-violent activities organized by grassroots committees working against the wall have proven that there is an alternative way of doing this. But Israeli policies have not changed, and even non-violent demonstrations are not tolerated.
And all number crunching aside, let me also provide an example of what the settler presence physically means to Palestinians. This is not the most egregious example. It is not an example of the many fatalities Palestinians have suffered, either from being shot from settlements, beaten to death by settlers, or the many wounded and maimed trying to reap their harvests. It is not an example of the losses to the Palestinian economy, such as it is, or of the health or psychological impact of being confined and imprisoned in towns or villages with no freedom of movement. It is simply the latest incident, conveyed to me as I write this article.
On July 31, settlers from the Sa Nur settlement (incidentally one of four West Bank settlements slated to be dismantled as part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral "disengagement" plan) prevented villagers from an area village from burying one of their dead. The dead man had to be returned to a hospital morgue. No reason or cause was stated.
Israeli human right organizations have issued numerous reports on the debilitating effects of the existence of settlements and the violence of settlers’ behavior toward Palestinians. One doesn’t have to dig deep for information on this subject. But the fact that Israel has not only gone unpunished, but has been actively encouraged and directly financed in its illegal policy of settlement and dispossession, casts real doubts on the willingness of leaders of the international community and its various diplomatic, legal and economic bodies to live up to their duties.
If the policy of settlement expansions and settlement building is not reversed, it will eventually lead to another phase of violence. This is no outrageous prophecy; the writing is on the wall. We know the settlers too well. They will do their utmost, using whatever means needed, to cement their presence and harm Palestinians.
But again, make no mistake: Palestinians are closer to another intifada against these fanatical thieves than ever. Palestinians have the right to be free on their own land without the existence of any manifestation or symbol of the Israeli occupation. The settlers have to leave our country and, accompanied by their army, go back to Israel. With settlers there will be no peace.