Kerry push for Israel-Palestine dialogue pointless if settlements aren’t addressed immediately

John Kerry faces a tough task as he shuffles between Amman and Jerusalem today in a bid to kickstart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The Secretary of State is asking Palestinian National Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas to return to negotiations while refusing to publicly demand that the Israeli government stop its ethnic cleansing.

As the New York Times reported earlier this week, President Obama “urged the Palestinians to return to the bargaining table even if Israel did not meet their condition of halting construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories.”

And as the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported today, Obama asked Abbas to refrain from lodging complaints against Israel with the International Criminal Court for any reason – including the continued construction of settlements.

The most contentious settlement issue is Israel’s approval of zoning and planning in the so-called “E1 zone” – a decision that was made after the Palestinian National Authority gained recognition as a “non-member observer state” at the United Nations.

According to the Asharq Al-Awsat report, Abbas agreed to hold off on any ICC complaints for two months, but said he would launch proceedings immediately if Israel carried out its plans to build “in the E1 corridor between Jerusalem and the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement” – a move that would physically separate Palestinians in East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

Obama might be right that “there’s no point to negotiations if the expectation is that everything must be figured out in advance,” as the AP reported. But it’s hard for one party to negotiate when its counterpart refuses to stop — even temporarily — actively encroaching on its territory. Unless President Obama was able to privately convince Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to a settlement freeze — recent criticism Obama offered in public has been very mild, that he doesn’t consider the settlements to be “constructive” — and was able to convey that to Abbas, it doesn’t seem likely that the talks will go anywhere. In other words, Kerry is wasting his time.

Recently, Sunjeev Bery, an advocacy director for Amnesty International, detailed how settlements represent an existential threat to Palestinians, using the village of Nabi Saleh as an example:

The villagers say that the expanding Israeli settlement of Halamish has blocked their access to a nearby source of water, a spring. For holding weekly protests against this settlement, they have suffered greatly at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Israeli military law imposed in the occupied West Bank places sweeping and arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. This makes any unauthorized peaceful protest by Palestinians a criminal offence. Palestinians engaging in such protests face arrest and excessive force from the Israeli military on a regular basis.

All of this becomes quite clear when visiting homes in Nabi Saleh. Bassem Tamimi filled his hands for me with some of the plastic and rubber-coated bullets he has collected which were fired by Israeli forces in the village. Coatings aside, each bullet I examined had a hard metal interior.

Inside one of the Tamimi homes, a coffee table serves as an exhibit of used tear gas canisters and other spent munitions. And as I walked up and down the streets of this small community, residents had strung up countless more used tear gas canisters like Christmas tree ornaments.

The Tamimis have experienced this tragedy because they dare to protest against Israeli settlements. Since 1967, Israel has established some 150 illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The settler population has now grown to over half a million Israelis.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.