The latest round of Arab-Israeli peace talks have once again hit a snag over the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These settlements date back over half a century and form an obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
The future of the Mideast peace process depends in large part on whether or not Israel decides to continue its settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians accuse the Israelis of illegally occupying territory that is rightfully theirs. Israelis, on the other hand, contend that these lands were “liberated” in 1967 and assert a biblical claim for a region they call Judaea and Samaria. Over the past 40 years, Israelis have created what they term as “facts on the ground” by reinforcing their territorial claims through the creation of 121 settlement communities with over half a million residents.
While the feuding parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict agree on little else, there is consensus that resolving this ongoing territorial dispute is central to creating a lasting peace in the region.
What are the origins of this dispute?
In 1967, the Israelis captured portions of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights along the border with Syria following the Six Day Arab-Israeli War. Beginning in the early 1970s, Israeli Zionists built small outposts, or settlements, on these lands in a drive to reclaim lands they contend are firmly rooted in Jewish biblical history.
Military and political leaders also supported the expansion of the Jewish state to include these captured territories. For the army, these regions provided a valuable land buffer that could enhance Israel’s precarious security, while politicians saw the territory as potentially valuable bargaining chips in future Arab-Israeli negotiations.
This consensus among Israeli political, military and religious leaders to occupy the disputed territory is critical to understanding the Israeli determination to not yield on this highly sensitive issue. It has proved to be resilient amid decades of intense international pressure to return the land in exchange for peace with its Arab neighbours.
So what exactly is a ‘settlement’?
The settlements range in size from small rural outposts to huge American-style suburbs. The majority of these settlements are not very large with populations ranging from several hundred to a few thousand people. In some cases, there is very little infrastructure to support these communities. In many instances, these smaller outposts are comprised of religious extremists who feel strongly they are reclaiming ancient Jewish lands documented in the Bible.
In contrast, the larger settlements bear little resemblance to these isolated outposts. Ma’ale Adumim on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, for example, is now home to almost 40,000 people. Its wide streets, shopping malls and ranch-style homes give it a distinctly modern, suburban feel. With housing and infrastructure spread across several kilometres, these communities have become seemingly permanent, creating what former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon termed “facts on the ground.”
Israel’s most important ally, the United States, has never been fully supportive of the Israeli settlement drive. Washington recognises that the presence of the settlements is such a sore point for the Arab world that it often complicates other US foreign policy objectives in the region.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is working to persuade the Israelis to extend a moratorium on building new settlements as a means of restarting stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. That Israeli moratorium is set to expire this on 26 September. The Israeli cabinet imposed the temporary construction ban 10 months ago under intensepressure from the US.
Now, though, with half a million settlers residing across these disputed territories and strong Israeli support for the settlements, there is little optimism that a resolution is to be achieved any time soon.