The dust has barely settled from this summer’s disastrous outbreak of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and already the Israeli government has announced the expropriation of nearly 4,000 dunams (approximately 1,000 acres) of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.
Israel is set to clear five Palestinian villages on the land west of Bethlehem in hopes of creating continuity in the area between the settlements of the Gush Etzion bloc and Jerusalem. By illegally building on occupied land and destroying the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state, Israel severely undermines the opportunity to achieve a two-state solution to the conflict and ensure its own future security and stability.
As a Palestinian-American who wishes to see a peaceful resolution to this interminable conflict, my confidence in the peace process has been rocked many times — but rarely more than after this announcement. It is clear to me that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to self-determination in their own states. That is why I ardently support a two-state solution. But this new settlement sends the message — to me, fellow Americans, fellow Palestinians, and fellow students — that Israel’s government does not take that solution seriously.
This latest action seems deliberately designed to perpetuate a military occupation that has already lasted 47 years. According to the Israeli peace group Peace Now, this seizure represents one of the largest Israeli land grabs in the West Bank in more than 30 years. Less than two months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel could never relinquish security control of the West Bank. Netanyahu is not mincing words when he promises unending occupation, and he continues to follow through with settlement expansion and land expropriation. Far from seeking a lasting solution to the root causes of this summer’s horrible violence, it appears that the current Israeli government is moving even further away from compromise and peace.
Defenders of the settlements (who outside of Israel grow fewer every day) often argue that the land they are building on is expected, under most existing peace plans, to be included as part of Israel in a future two-state agreement. But that argument is irrelevant while the current Israeli government shows no interest in actually reaching a two-state solution and ending the occupation anytime soon. Regardless of exact location, every new construction announcement over the Green Line further undermines the credibility and popularity of pro-peace Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas — and empowers the increasingly-popular Hamas. A poll this month by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey showed support for Fatah falling relative to Hamas, a damning indictment of Israel’s strategy.
The time has come for the United States, Israel’s closest friend, to declare clearly that the settlements are “illegal” — something that it previously did in the first few decades of the occupation. This would send a strong message to the Netanyahu government that its current course is unacceptable even to its greatest strategic ally. It would open the door for the Obama administration to reassess how it implements its settlement policy, and to potentially take stronger steps if Israeli actions show no sign of changing.
Encouragingly, the United States has already called for the Israeli government to reverse the decision, arguing that, “the announcement, like every other settlement announcement Israel makes, planning step they approve, and construction tender they issue, is counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.” This is a good step — but the US has made similar statements in the past, to little effect. To be a true friend to Israel, the Obama administration needs to be firm and decisive in making clear that the path of its current government is disastrous for American policy and for Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state — not to mention unacceptable for Palestinians, who have a right to live free from occupation.
Inaction discredits and lets down Americans like myself who doggedly advocate a negotiated resolution to the conflict. It fuels the understandable frustration of those — like some of my friends and family — who view the current “peace process” as simply a “piece-by-piece” process, in which Israel slowly gobbles up more and more Palestinian land while the world sits by. If the US government won’t stand behind its own policies, how can we take the American role as a peacemaker seriously?
In the wake of a war that seemed to only strengthen advocates of violence on both sides, it has never been more clear that Israel’s leaders cannot achieve peace and security through military means. Israel’s ever-growing foothold in Palestinian territory doesn’t just threaten the viability of an independent Palestinian state — it also sends Israel deeper into diplomatic isolation, thereby threatening Israel’s long-term security, prosperity and international legitimacy. President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and all Americans committed to safety and security for both Israelis and Palestinians must do more than offer empty words of condemnation to actions that seriously undermine both. The millions on both sides who want an end to conflict, destruction and oppression deserve better. Will we let them down?
About Yasmeen: Yasmeen Serhan is a Palestinian-American student and J Street U leader studying international relations at the University of Southern California.