At the White House last Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon again pledged to remove West Bank settlement outposts. But despite similar promises, and televised images of Israeli soldiers wrestling with Jewish settlers to dismantle outposts, settlements continue to expand, threatening peace efforts. According to the Israeli nonprofit Peace Now, since the Bush administration's "road map" to peace was launched, twenty two outposts have been dismantled, but an equal number of new ones built. And just after his White House visit, Sharon's government announced plans to build new settlement housing in Gaza.
Sadly, this is not surprising. Last fall, I volunteered with the International Solidarity Movement, helping Palestinian farmers harvest olives on land that has been theirs for generations. Too often, I saw how extremist settlers, with tacit Israeli government support, are rapidly taking over the West Bank. A battle is being fought in the West Bank for every tree and hill, and Palestinian farmers are losing badly. The creation, expansion and defense of the settlements involves massive daily violence that touches virtually every Palestinian life.
Foreign volunteers accompany Palestinians because armed settlers often attack Palestinians to drive them from their own land. Settlers destroy olive trees and construct fences and buildings. Deeds showing Palestinian land ownership don't stop the settlers.
In one West Bank valley where we worked, the olive groves are encircled by fortified hilltop settlement complexes. Alone atop one hill sits the castle-like home of settler Moshe Zar, a close friend of Ariel Sharon. In the New York Times Samantha Shapiro called Zar a "Wild West-style vigilante mayor." Nearby real estate billboards liken the settlers to "pioneers," while Palestinians compare themselves to our persecuted Native Americans.
When we arrived below an outpost of trailer homes near Zar's home, one Palestinian landowner named Youssef discovered that Israeli settlers had picked or destroyed many of his olive trees. At first, Israeli soldiers watched from the outpost, letting us work. Then Zar's wife arrived, and summoned the Israeli police. Without explanation, the police said we must all leave or face arrest. We left, and Youssef's only solace was that our presence enabled him to reach his land for the first time in two years.
Days later, the village decided to harvest another hillside below Zar's house. Zar is fighting in court for ownership of these groves, claiming Palestinians sold them. The Palestinians deny this, but fear biased Israeli courts may doom their cause.
After we began work there, Israeli military officials arrived at Zar's home, and we heard Zar yelling. Then Israeli police arrived and again told us to leave, saying the land ownership was disputed. They seized bags of olives and the Palestinians' IDs.
As the police drove off, we saw 40 young Israeli men marching toward us, led by two older men with semiautomatics. Another confrontation between settlers and Palestinians seemed imminent. But a sudden downpour and dangerous lightning struck as the settlers reached us, forcing everyone to flee for shelter.
According to the Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem, settlers control 41 percent of the West Bank. There are about 150 settlements and 60 outposts in the occupied territories. All are illegal under international law. Many settlements started as "outposts" of a few trailer homes.
Most settlers move to settlements to benefit from substantial Israeli government subsidies on housing and services. However, Americans for Peace Now, found that 20 percent of settlers moved to the West Bank for religious reasons. They believe the West Bank was divinely mandated to Jews. Though a minority, these extremist settlers dictate realities on the ground, with active or passive government support.
The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot found that 78 percent of Israelis favor "dismantling the vast majority of settlements" as part of a peace agreement. Yet the settlements have grown rapidly under past Labor governments, and more recently under right-wing Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a leading settlement proponent. In fact, since the Oslo Peace Process began in 1993, the settler population has doubled to 400,000.
The settlements are also at the heart of the conflict around the construction of Israel's Wall. The Wall's controversial path within the West Bank was drawn to surround and annex to Israel maximum amounts of settlements and Palestinian land.
Seeing no brake on settlement expansion, Palestinians wonder why they alone must meet their road map obligations. The majority of Israelis seem to recognize Israel's obligation to leave the settlements. We must strongly urge Israel to stop extremist settlers and their supporters from hijacking peace in the Middle East.
Patrick Connors (firstname.lastname@example.org) spent three months in the West Bank with the International Solidarity Movement helping Palestinian farmers to access their land. Previously, he managed international humanitarian aid programs for twelve years, including three years in the Gaza Strip.