Wednesday, June 2, 2010

West Bank Settlements

Today, I visited some of the Israeli settlements around the West Bank. Israeli Jewish colonies set up in the Palestinian Territories are most often referred to as "settlements", although this is seen as a somewhat derogatory term to settlers and Israelis, mainly because there is so much politics tied to the term. According to the CIA World Factbook, some 187,000 Israeli settlers currently live in more than 100 such settlements in the West Bank, with around another 177,000 in the area of Arab East Jerusalem.

The World Court and UN Security Council both condemn settlement building as illegal under international law, a ruling that Israel disputes; the United States and the European Union have commonly deemed settlements an obstacle to peace and have urged Israel to stop further building. In May 2009, President Barack Obama demanded a freeze
of settlement construction in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by saying, "Israel...will abide by its commitments not to build new settlements and to dismantle unauthorized outposts." Reports of continued settlement construction and expansion, however, have appeared in the international press. My trip to visit the settlements has also confirmed that there has not been a freeze to settlement construction. (See the picture to the right of Ariel settlement, where there is active construction on the expansion of the University). Netanyahu has stated, on several occasions, that settlement construction and expansion is part of the "natural growth" of the Israeli population. But it seems that settlement construction is designed to annexe large parts of the Palestinian Territories, thereby marginalizing and fragmenting the Palestinian population.

Settlements range in size from a collection of caravans on a remote hilltop to large urban areas, such as Ma'ale Adumim near Jerusalem, home to tens of thousands of Israelis and now considered by most Israelis to be a suburb of Jerusalem. I visited the settlement of Rahelim, near Nablus, and the settler who spoke with me gave me a short tour of the compound, which included the construction of a new preschool, funded by an American organization. I visited the large settlement of Ariel, which includes a university campus and 25,000 settlers. The settlement of Alfe Menache, which is a few miles from the Green Line, is considered a "moderate" settlement, with the residents hoping that they will one day be absorbed by the Green Line (as it moves closer in towards the West Bank) and become part of Israel.

The settlers in all of these communities have moved to the West Bank for both ideological (they believe the land belongs to them as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy) or economic reasons (the rent is cheap). Most of the people that I interviewed expressed an enormous amount of apathy for the occupation and the plight of the Palestinians ("Are we in the territories? I didn't even
notice!"). None had visited a Palestinian village, and most considered the land that they settled on to be just another part of Israel ("This land didn't belong to anyone when we arrived.").

Palestinians claim that the settlements illegally occupy land belonging to Palestinians, and that they frequently divert precious water resources from nearby Palestinian cities, towns and villages. Many roads threading their way through the West Bank as access roads to settlements off-limits to Palestinians, who commonly refer to these as "apartheid roads". Security around these roads and settlements means that Palestinians are frequently required to perform lengthy diversions to get to work, school, or elsewhere. There are numerous reports of harassment of Palestinians by settlers. As I drove along the road running south of Mount Gerizim, I saw some fields burning and a lot of Israeli military on the road. When I read the news later, I saw that the settlers living in the settlement of Yizhar had set fire to the olive and almond groves of the Palestinian fields of the neighboring Palestinian village, Urif, burning over 100 dunums (about 24 acres). See the news story here.

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