On rocky ground

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Sarah Leah Whitson is Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

The debate over Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories is often framed in terms of whether they should be “frozen” or allowed to grow “naturally.” But that is akin to asking whether a thief should be allowed merely to keep his ill-gotten gains or steal some more. It misses the most fundamental point: Under international law, all settlements on occupied territory are unlawful. And there is only one remedy: Israel should dismantle them, relocate the settlers within its recognized 1967 borders and compensate Palestinians for the losses the settlements have caused.

Removing the settlements is mandated by the laws of the Geneva Convention, which state that military occupations are to be a temporary state of affairs and prohibit occupying powers from moving their populations into conquered territory. The intent is to foreclose an occupying power from later citing its population as “facts on the ground” to claim the territory, something Israel has done in East Jerusalem and appears to want to do with much of the West Bank.

The legal principles were reaffirmed in 2004 by the International Court of Justice, which cited a U.N. Security Council statement that the settlements were “a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” The International Committee of the Red Cross and an overwhelming number of institutions concerned with the enforcement of international humanitarian law have concurred in that view.


The economic and social cost of Israeli settlements to the Palestinian population, stemming in part from Israel’s need to protect them, are enormous. The 634 (at last count) roadblocks, barriers and checkpoints erected to control the movement of lawful residents of the territory make travel an ordeal. Sometimes even getting to work, school or the home of a relative is impossible for Palestinians. Every day, they must wait in line for hours to show their IDs, and some days they are randomly rerouted, told to go home or, worse, detained for questioning.

Similarly, the fact that Israel is building 87% of its projected 450-mile “security barrier” on Palestinian territory has less to do with protecting Israel from suicide bombers -- which could have been accomplished by erecting a wall on the Green Line -- than it does with putting 10% of West Bank territory, including most settlers, on the Israeli side. And while Israeli troops protect the settlers from armed Palestinian groups, there is little protection for Palestinians from the settlers’ marauding militias and gangs, which have terrorized the local population, destroying their crops, uprooting their trees and throwing stones at their houses and schools.

Too little attention is given to the pervasive system of government-sponsored discrimination against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where Israel has constructed roads exclusively for settlers and established vastly unequal access to water, fuel, education, healthcare, transportation, infrastructure and virtually every other social service. Israeli authorities readily grant settlers building permits that they deny to Palestinians, whose “illegal” homes they often demolish at short notice. The glaring discrepancy in Israel’s treatment of two populations living on the same land has taken a significant moral toll on Israel, as well as a political one, with wide coverage of humiliation and abuse at the hands of its security forces.

The common refrain of Israeli and even American politicians who recognize that the settlements must go is that it would be politically difficult to dismantle them, in part because it would stir the ire of the settlers and their supporters, an important voting bloc in Israel. Instead, politicians argue that settlements must be a part of future negotiations and a possible land swap.

But this only serves as further incentive to expand settlements and makes a political resolution even more difficult. It also condones in the interim Israel’s continuing human rights abuses in the name of settler security, leaving respect for Palestinians’ rights a second-tier consideration that must await the conclusion of peace talks that have already gone on for decades.

Israel has a duty to protect its citizens, but not in a way that violates the rights of Palestinians. The lawful, rights-respecting way to protect the security of settlers is to move them back to Israel. That should be the starting point of any discussion on settlements.