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Settlements and lies: the obstacles to peace

Israel has been building settlements in the occupied West Bank since 1967, although Jewish settlement in Palestine began in earnest in the 19th century. In response, the Arabs condemn Israel's illegal actions and Palestinian leaders go running to the international community to complain. Listening to Arab news items about settlements and Arab responses to them you get the impression that the Israelis are the ones under siege and with no option but to give up. Condemnation is a losing media weapon.

After the 1967 war Israel concentrated its settlement activities in sensitive religious and geographic areas, starting with Jerusalem and Hebron as they are regarded as holy cities by Jews. Border areas such as the Jordan Valley and Golan Heights, as well as Latrun, Qalqilya and Etzion were all strategic locations for the military. In the seventies and eighties Israeli settlements appeared on hill tops across the "spine" of the West Bank, from Jenin to Hebron.

Large swathes of land have been confiscated by the Israelis to build the settlements and settler-only roads, creating in the process two distinct communities. One is Jewish and has an advanced service, social and economic infrastructure, with transportation, communication, water and electricity networks; it is linked to Israel physically by settler-only roads so illegal settlers feel part of the state.

The other, non-Jewish, community is marginalised on all levels; its land has been lacerated to deprive it of any social, economic or geographic contiguity. Palestinians feel like strangers in their own home. Israel's intention has been to make life so miserable for Palestinians that they want to pack up and leave.

Settlements represent the biggest threat to the presence of Palestinians in the West Bank and any proposals for a just solution to the conflict. Thus anyone concerned about "the peace process" must do something about settlements. From Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, a freeze on settlements has been integral to finding and signing a lasting agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Even Ariel Sharon agreed to freeze settlements as part of a solution to the problem.

However, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation bypassed the issue of settlements in the Oslo Accord and the agreements that followed and did not insist on an end to settlements before signing on the dotted line. The PLO thought that it was enough to postpone settlements as part of the "final status" negotiations. That was fatal error.

Post-Oslo, the settlements and number of settlers have both increased dramatically. Condemnations mean nothing as the numbers continued to rise. Palestinians are used to hearing statements against settlements while having to watch them grow. America calls settlements "an obstacle to the peace process" but does nothing to stop Israel, even as its officials visit the region and condemn settlement expansion. The US sends billions of dollars of aid to the same Israeli government which is building the settlements; it provides diplomatic and political cover for Israel's illegal activities; it works hand in hand with Israel to block Palestinian aspirations and rights; and the Arabs delude themselves that Washington is serious about finding a way to stop settlements.

America's commitment to Israel's "security" takes precedence over everything and anything else. The US is helping Israel to buy more time with the international community so that it can build even more settlements and create more obscene "facts on the ground".

The Arab states may pay lip-service to putting pressure on Israel to stop settlement expansion, but that's all it is. A number have diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv and try to normalise relations on many levels, about which there is little media coverage.

Those states with no formal links with Israel do the bare minimum. They could back the boycott campaign; they could stop diplomatic links with those who have them; they could end normalisation; they could support resistance groups; but they don't.

Instead, we see Israeli leaders and investors visiting Arab countries comfortably and peacefully. Their hosts insist on sticking to the Arab Initiative even though Israel refuses to discuss it.

The Palestinian Authority is little better. If a Palestinian throws a stone at a settler, the PA security agencies and the Israeli army will pursue him; but if a settler attacks Palestinians, no one will do anything. Palestinians are now afraid to walk along the main roads between cities or bypass roads for fear of settler attacks, while the settlers strut around as if they own the place. When the real national struggle was taking place the opposite was the case, but then along came the Palestinian Authority to make a mockery of Palestinians in front of their enemies.

Palestinian agreements with Israel protect illegal settlers and do not call for an end to settlements or even a freeze on their expansion; such agreements place Palestinians in danger and reduce them to consumers. The Palestinian Authority has traded national principles for bread. When the leader of the PA said that bread is more important than democracy what he meant was that getting bread is more important than insisting on freedom.

The PA and the factions condemn settlements, which must reassure Israel that it faces no challenges or obstacles to its occupation programme. Amazing as it may seem, there are Palestinians who invest in settlements and who normalise links with settlers. When one Palestinian took direct action against settlers by putting rocks and nails on the streets to puncture car tyres, the settlers evacuated their illegal homes, it was the PA security services which went after him.

Palestinian officials and the Arab and Palestinian media consider US Secretary of State John Kerry to be a wise and serious man who will work to convince Israel of the justness of the Palestinian cause. Of course Kerry is a wise man; he must know that Israeli settlement activity doesn't lead to any serious Arab or Palestinian moves against Israel, so why should he be "more royal than the king"? He also knows full well that his visits make Arab leaders look active in the eyes of their people, but that they are powerless to do anything about or to Israel.

It is a lie for Palestinian leaders to insist that Israeli settlements destroy the peace process; settlements are growing and the Palestinian Authority is going back to the negotiating table. Settlements and talks are both ongoing, so why is one said to be destroying the other?

Settlements have not affected Israel's position at all and have not led to any tension with Arab countries or with the Palestinian Authority as it does not threaten Israeli security. Israel realised a long time ago that the Arabs are looking for a way out without losing all of their dignity. The Israelis also know that the PA has made concession after concession for nothing in return, and that it will continue to do so, unless the Arab states change their attitude. And that is not going to happen.

Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are now adopting popular and peaceful resistance against Israel, with regular demonstrations on Fridays near the apartheid wall. If their leaders can't, or won't, do anything, then perhaps they can, and will. God bless them.

The author is a professor of politics at An-Najah University in Palestine. This article is a translation of the Arabic text which appeared on Al Jazeera on 13 July, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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