Breaking Down Walls: Inside the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Tamar Shuhendler, Originally written and published in the 2013-4 edition of the Meridian Journal

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of great complexity and one that is continuously sustained by hostile acts on both sides. Currently, the most troubling issue that complicates the conflict is the existence of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories. There are settlements in East Jerusalem and most controversially, in the West Bank. According to The CIA World Factbook, as of 2013, more than two million Israeli citizens were living in the West Bank settlements, which are interspersed throughout theWest Bank, creating a highly volatile situation. The intention of these settlements are threefold: providing land to Israel’s expanding population, giving access to the mostly religious settlers to land that is in the Judea Samaria, the biblical era land of Israel, and reinforcing the claim that these territories are part of the current State of Israel. The last issue makes a peaceful coexistence between the settlers and the surrounding Arab population seemingly impossible. Therefore the settlements are fenced in and highly guarded by the Israel Defense Force to ensure the security of both those living there and the Palestinian population living around the settlements. Despite these precautions, acts of violence on both sites continue and threaten the feeble stability.

In Ian Lutsick’s article Israel and the West Bank after Elon Moreh: The Mechanics of De Facto Annexation, he brings up that Israel justified the building of settlements on the ‘law of domain’, which gives Israel the right to use its sovereign land. However, this argument becomes irrelevant when one realizes that the West Bank is disputed territory and therefore cannot be occupied by the state of Israel.  These settlers are also living in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an occupying power cannot put its own civilian population in the occupied territory. The West Bank occupation is not recognized by any state other than Israel, and Israel has been admonished by the United Nations for continuing to settle on land that it does not rightfully own.

These admonishments also bring Israel’s legitimacy as a state into question. Legitimacy is a governing principle of international affairs and is a foundation that every country strives for and wants to achieve. The fact that Israel is violating international law by settling in the West Bank shows other countries that the Israeli government is not legitimate because it doesn’t follow international norms. Being seen as illegitimate is something that Israel cannot risk, because it is a country that has been questioned since its establishment. The Israeli government has had to prove its legitimacy as a country to other states that question whether the Jewish state has the right to exist. Having these settlements, which are in violation of numerous laws does not help Israel seem like a functioning and reputable country in the eyes of the international system. As Thomas Friedman, contributor to the New York Times stresses, Israel can be two of the following three options: Jewish, democratic, or occupying. However, it cannot be all three and this adds to the stress of the conflict. If Israel chooses to remain an occupying power, it will continue to lose its legitimacy to the international community.

Israeli public opinion itself is split on the issue of settlements. As an Israeli born citizen, and someone who visits the country regularly, I have seen the settlements first-hand while visiting Jerusalem, and have had the opportunity to observe how the settlements influence Israel and its politics. While the settlements provide people with a place to live close to holy sites, they cause great tension and exacerbate polarization in Israel. There is a wide opinion gap in Israel, with one side supporting the settlements, and the other favoring the establishment of Palestine through a two-state solution to enable much desired peace. In a public opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Center it was found that in 2013, 42% of Israelis believed that settlement building hurt Israeli security, while 27% said that is helped security. In a Truman/PCPSR poll in October of 2010 it was found that Israelis were almost evenly divided on whether settlements should be dismantled as part of a peace agreement, with 45.2% supporting the dismantling and 45.9% opposing it. These polls demonstrate the deep divide among Israelis on this issue, and no matter what the government does it will be met with opposition from within the country.

Economics also plays into this, as referenced in an article by Oraneet Orevi, called A holistic approach to the conflict of Israel and Palestine: where we are now and where we can go which states that “while the settlers still have the agency to reject such a move, the Israeli government is providing large incentives to impact their decision, making settler transfers not entirely voluntary.” The current conservative Israeli government encourages settlements by providing settlers with money and government support, which makes settlements an attractive alternative to expensive housing in the densely populated heart land of Israel. However, in an essay entitled The Price of Peace by Robert Mason, he writes that “The economic cost of peace in Jerusalem will depend on whether an open or closed approach is taken and the extent to which settlements will be evacuated, swapped, or traded off against other considerations.” In other words, if Israel doesn’t efficiently shut down the territories there will be repercussions that will negatively impact the peace deliberations. There could also be economic implications because of a new boycott on Israel that is beginning to gain momentum throughout the international community. This boycott, called the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has started to gain support from Europe, and increasingly the United States.This growth is beginning to worry Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed this in a speech on Tuesday, March 5th 2014, which made it clear that he is taking this threat seriously and is willing to compromise in order to avoid the boycott altogether.

Since July 2013, after a three year silence, these devastatingly consequential boycott threats, as well as pressure from the United States have led to resumed peace talks between the Israeli and Palestinian governments. These talks are allowing both governments to state their requirements for the other state in moving forward, and it is clear that there will be no solution in the eyes of the Palestinians until the Israeli settlements are removed. Before an Oval Office meeting, President Obama told reporters that “it is still possible to create two states, but it is difficult and requires compromise from both sides.” This two state option would of course require the removal of Israeli citizens from Palestinian territories. While the state of Israel would rather keep control of the settlements it is clear that the only way to achieve peace with Palestine is to remove Israelisfrom Palestinian territory and for both nations to respect their borders.

The late Israeli Prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon recognized the need for a solution during their presidencies, and both attempted to take steps forward in bringing peace to both sides. Sharon brought up the idea of disengagement with the Palestinians and called for Jewish settlers to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, which lost him supporters because it was such a radical change of heart for the Prime Minister who has previously helped build Jewish communities on disputed territories. While most of Sharon’s actions were simply taken for the security of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin’s actions were more progressive towards peace. Rabin was instrumental in the signing of the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian National Authority and gave it some control over parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Rabin was assassinated by a right wing radical who opposed the Oslo Accords and the opportunity for peace between Israel and Palestine was thrown into question. Lately there has been new hope because of the resumed talks and for the best interests of Israelis and Palestinians alike the settlements should be removed to allow for peace to be an option.

Friedman, Thomas L. “Israel’s Big Question.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

“Israeli Public Opinion Polls: Opinion on Settlements and Outposts.” Israeli Opinion on Settlements and Outposts. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

Nakamura, David. “Obama Presses Israel’s Netanyahu on Peace Talks with Palestinians.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 04 Mar. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

Orevi, Oraneet. “A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO THE CONFLICT OF ISRAEL AND PALESTINE: WHERE WE ARE NOW AND WHERE WE CAN GO.” Http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/. N.p., n.d. Web.

“Project MUSE – The Price of Peace: A Reevaluation of the Economic Dimension in the Middle East Peace Process.” Project MUSE – The Price of Peace: A Reevaluation of the Economic Dimension in the Middle East Peace Process. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

Rudoren, Jodi. “Palestinian Leader Says He Can Accept Israeli Military in West Bank for 3 Years.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

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