Accessibility links

For Palestinians, Success of Talks Depends on Settlements Issue

  • Luis Ramirez

The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, revived less than a month ago, face a major snag - the issue of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Palestinians demand a freeze on settlement construction and the eventual removal of settler communities that the Palestinians say impede the establishment of a sovereign state. Israelis say they want negotiations without preconditions.

Grape farmer Abdullah Ghneim believes he is living on borrowed time, saying "They confiscated the land."

This patch of grapevines and olive groves near Bethlehem has been in his family for centuries. He says his patch is getting smaller as Israeli settlements - bordering his land on three sides - expand.

This morning, he sees how residents of a neighboring settlement have laid down barbed wire and planted new olive trees on his land. "It stole my land. This settlement is built over my land. What do you think my feeling is against the settlement? Who confiscates your land, do you like him?"

Israel has encouraged its people to settle these lands since its occupation began in 1967. Many settlers have come out of religious conviction and the biblical belief that God promised these lands to the Hebrew people thousands of years ago. Some in Israel believe having the land settled by Israelis means security for the Jewish state, surrounded largely by foes in the region.

Salah Tamari is a former governor of Bethlehem who also headed the Palestinian committee on settlements. "The Israelis need to decide for themselves on this issue. How necessary are the settlements for Israeli security, for the Israeli being? On the contrary, I think settlements and settlers and their mentality and their policies are harming the Israeli security and as long as there are settlers among Palestinians, there shall always be tension and the possibility of bloody conflict," he said.

Talks got under way focusing on borders and security. Israel's priority is security. The Palestinians stress the issue of borders. They want an eventual total freeze on construction in settlements to make way for a Palestinian state.

Nabil Shaath is a senior Palestinian negotiator. He explains why they have stressed the settlements issue in negotiations. "We have been through this for 19 years. When we signed the Oslo agreement, there was 150,000 settlers in the West Bank. Today, there are 450,000 settlers in the West Bank, which means that while we were negotiating very hopefully, the speed with which the deepening of the occupation was continuing," he said.

Exact figures on settlement population growth vary, but Israeli and Palestinian statistics consistently show it has climbed substantially over the past two decades.

Abdullah Ghneim hopes for a final peace agreement soon. He believes it is a matter of time before settlers squeeze him out. "It's not enough to stop building. They will stop all kinds of building and they will remove. We ask them to remove (the settlements). We want to end the occupation," he said.

Ghneim fears that anger and frustration may lead to more bloodshed if a final agreement does not come soon.

He looks to his leaders, to Israel, and to the U.S. mediators to keep the peace process alive, and cause the wrath to subside.