x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Settlers' campaign forces the question

The increasing settler expansion and violence in the West Bank is a misguided attempt to change the facts on the ground.

As the clock ticks down towards an expected United Nations vote on an independent Palestinian state, Israeli settlers are intent on changing the facts on the ground.

In recent days the Palestinian Authority has reported that settler attacks on Palestinians and their property in the West Bank "escalated dramatically" in June. More than 300 olive trees were burnt in the village of Aqraba, 350 trees destroyed in Deir al Hatab village, and grapevines uprooted in Hebron and Beit Ummar. Meanwhile, Palestinians face intimidation and humiliation on a daily basis as homes are demolished to make way for new settlements.

Amid Israel's rightward drift, and Benjamin Netanyahu's government's systematic opposition to the peace process, it is a worrying thought that the settler movement is even more extreme. As during the 2005 evacuation in Gaza, settlers will engage in open confrontation even with IDF soldiers. Some have threatened to take up arms.

Not that this Israeli government has shown any will to rein them in. The government continues to confiscate land from Palestinians without cause, most recently 20 hectares near Ramallah to retroactively "legalise" a settlement outpost. The settlement boundaries are demarcating the future Israeli state in the minds of the Netanyahu government.

It is a collective delusion that is fostered by the rise of the settlement movement in Israeli society. The core of the armed forces and the upper tiers of academia are being dominated by ideologues.

All of this is against Israel's interests. Any lasting Arab-Israeli peace depends, at a minimum, on a viable Palestinian state that includes the land these settlements have squatted on. No level of settler attacks can drive away that basic fact.

While the peace process based on the Oslo Accords is all but dead, there is a possibility to advance a Palestinian state with the UN vote in September. That recognition can be a key step to statehood, even if Israel's extremists try to foist their own reality on the world.

The best case will be for the settlements to be willingly abandoned, which is not as farfetched as some might fear. Hardline settler leaders have admitted that many would take economic incentives to leave the settlements. The experience in the Gaza Strip in 2005 shows that Israel could curb the settlements if it chose.

As long as it fails to do so, expanding settlements and settler violence is not just a ticking clock, but a timebomb.