Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank - home to about 300,000
Israelis - are a crucial issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and
one that threatens to derail prospects for peace. U.S. President
Barack Obama, in his speech to the Muslim world this month, called for
a freeze on all settlement activity. Washington has said in no
uncertain terms that Israel's expansion of existing settlements must
stop. Israeli compliance with the U.S. demand will not come easily.
Yitzhar, a hilltop community near the West Bank city of Nablus, is home to about 500 Jewish residents.
of them is Benjamin Allen, a Jew originally from the United States who
came here nearly ten years ago. He earns his living as a construction
worker and also by working part-time at a grocery store in the
settlement. He and his family have established roots here, and he says
leaving is not an option.
"It would destroy me. And I think that if we, God forbid, have to leave here, it's the end."
Yitzhar sits on land captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day war.
property prices and tax incentives are some of the reasons Israeli Jews
have come to live at remote, fenced-in communities like Yitzhar.
But it is ideology tied to roots in the ancient past that has driven many - including Allen - to settle here.
did not come back here as Israelis, we came back as Jews," said Allen.
"This part of the land where I live, where we live, is where Abraham
walked, and Isaac walked, and Jacob walked. This is Jewish land as far
as I'm concerned."
In his speech this month, President Obama
said the U.S. supports a two-state solution with the West Bank and Gaza
Strip forming the Palestinian state, living peaceably alongside Israel.
But for Palestinians, settlements like Yitzhar encroach on
land that has been theirs for centuries, and are an obstacle to the
creation of an independent state.
In the nearby Arab village of
Asira al-Qabaliya, Hiyam Suleiman and her family earn a living from
growing saffron and other herbs. She says villagers have lost access to their fields. She says there will be no peace as long as the settlers are here.
says her family's land is beyond the hill, on the other side of the
settlement. She says her relatives cannot reach it because the settlers
will not let them go over there.
Last September, Asira
al-Qabaliya was the scene of violence when scores of residents from the
Yitzhar settlement stormed the village and attacked Palestinian
Residents recorded the violence. The tape was then
made public by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. It shows
Jewish settlers moving in on Palestinian homes and hurling rocks.
Gunfire broke out. Witnesses say some of the Jews were armed. Footage shows Israeli soldiers standing by, watching.
like most settlements is closely guarded due to past attacks from
Palestinians who are angry over the settlers' presence.
say the attack in September on Asira al-Qabaliya was retaliation after
an Arab intruder entered Yitzhar, set a house on fire, and stabbed a
In the subsequent violence, at least four Palestinians were shot.
Hiyam Suleiman witnessed the attacks. She wants the settlers to leave.
says this is no life for her and her family. She says she and her
family want to be free. An Arab - she says - should be free in his own
house. She says if a person is attacked, of course he will strike back
because his dignity has been lost.
Hiyam's husband, Nabil
Assaideh, says he hopes Palestinian leaders and the United States
increase pressure on Israel to remove all Jewish settlements from the
He says there will never be peace as long as the
settlements are here. He says Israel has to remove all the
settlements. Once that happens, he believes everyone will coexist. He
says this land is the home of three religions: Islam, Christianity,
and Judaism and he says no one should be attacking one another.
Allen believes the existence of this and other West Bank settlements is
crucial for the survival of the State of Israel. He hopes the
government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will stand firm
against U.S. pressure to freeze the settlements.
"I hope when I
hear what they say that they mean it and I hope that they don't cave
into the pressure because I think the pressure on Israel from the EU
and America is just going to increase as time goes by," said Allen.
the settlements will not come easily. But without an agreement on them,
analysts say peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be