This Monday, President Barak Obama met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. According to the White House, they discussed “the progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.”
In his meeting with President Obama earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented the core issues as Israel frames them: Israel’s security, the future of Jerusalem, and the borders of a Palestinian state. These are undoubtedly important. But as President Abbas knows, they’re not the whole story.
The settlements are the root cause, the primary driver, and the pivot point of the vast majority of the injustice and systematic and sophisticated violation of Palestinian human rights created by the occupation.
If the justification of the first settlements was framed as a means to protect the citizens of Israel, this is no longer the case. Now the balance has changed, and the vast majority of the military resources invested by the state are not used to protect its citizens within the Green Line, but actually to protect the settlements and the more than half a million settlers now living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
To secure those settlements and those settlers, Israel has imposed severe limitations on Palestinians’ freedom of movement in the West Bank. In the Hebron city center, for example, the Israeli army prohibits Palestinians from even walking on their own streets if they happen to live next to houses occupied by Jewish settlers. The army has imposed a total ban on Palestinians entering areas that were once the city’s commercial hub.
The settlements are placed in strategic locations designed to prevent any possibility of territorial compromise. And Israel has put extra resources to build a very sophisticated road network linking settlements to each other and to sovereign Israel, and to keep them secure and prevent any contact between Palestinians and Israelis. The outcome is that the settlement enterprise, including its extensive road network, violates the Palestinians’ basic human right to freedom of movement.
The illegitimacy of the settlements and their violation of Palestinian rights do not make the settlers fair game for Palestinian attacks, and do not mean that they aren’t entitled to protection by Israel’s security forces. But this defense is too often abused in order to rob Palestinians of their lands and human rights.
The Separation Barrier is another central element in the settlement regime. The official justification for building the barrier was to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel. But the route of the barrier, which includes as many settlements as possible within a de facto future Israeli border, shows that it is just another mechanism to annex Palestinian land. This has nothing to do with security.
The presence of Israeli citizens in settlements in the West Bank creates a discriminatory dual legal system where different laws apply to settlers and Palestinians. Israeli citizens who live in the settlements are subject to Israel’s legal system and to laws that grant them equal rights as citizens in a democratic state and ensure they get due process.
Palestinians, on the other hand, have no civil standing and are subject to military law and a convoluted system of edicts and military regulations that makes a mockery of fairness and due process.
The settlements are not just another subject on the table, they are the core issue. Everything else is linked to their protections and expansions. No matter the outcome of the current peace talks, the human rights issues caused by the settlements must be addressed.
Saragusti is an Israeli journalist and the director of B'Tselem USA, the D.C.-based branch of Israel's leading huiman rights organization.