(Reuters) - Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank is again causing friction between Israel and Palestinians on the eve of a visit in which President George W. Bush hopes to bolster a recently revived, U.S.-sponsored peace process.
Close to half a million Jews live on West Bank land seized by Israel in 1967, including Arab East Jerusalem. Some live in “outposts” not recognized by Israeli law but most are in more than 100 official settlements — some with tens of thousands of residents — under Israeli rule, including areas annexed to Jerusalem. Many, including some 200,000 living on occupied land that Israel says is part of Jerusalem, are motivated by cheaper housing costs. Others see themselves as pioneers exercising what they believe is a God-given right for Jews to lands they call Judea and Samaria.
World powers view settlements as illegal under international law, including the Geneva Conventions. They also say Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and surrounding areas is illegal. Israel demurs but agreed in 2003, under the U.S.-sponsored “road map” to peace, to “freeze all settlement activity” including building in existing settlements, which Israeli governments refer to as “natural growth”. It also agreed to dismantle outposts, some just trailers, set up since 2001. In 2005, it forced all 8,500 settlers to leave the Gaza Strip. Settlement in the West Bank has continued to expand at a rate higher than the population growth inside Israel, according to peace movements.
Palestinians, who number about 2.5 million in the West Bank and 1.5 million in Gaza, want the land that the settlers have claimed as part of a state and say settlements and the Israeli military protection they enjoy — including the mammoth West Bank barrier being built — disrupt their economy and threaten any prospect of real sovereignty. Palestinians fear settlements will isolate formerly Arab-ruled East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as their capital, from the West Bank and also split the West Bank into northern and southern zones.
Israeli coalition governments depend on pro-settler parties who speak for a significant part of Israel’s 7 million people. Governments have also argued at times that they lack powers to prevent settlers building and accuse Palestinian leaders of not honoring their own road map pledges on halting violence.
Known as Jabal Abu Ghneim by Palestinians, Har Homa lies between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Israel annexed the area, part of the West Bank, and calls it a neighborhood of a united Jerusalem. Palestinians say the building aimed to separate Jerusalem from Bethlehem and the West Bank. The start of building of Jewish homes there in 1997 sparked a violent collapse in peace negotiations. A week after Bush’s Annapolis conference relaunched talks in November, the Housing Ministry issued a tender to build more homes there.
Palestinians say Israel’s hesitation in freezing settlement shows bad faith and undermines any negotiation. Israel proposes drawing a border with the Palestinian state to place most settlers’ homes inside Israel and giving the Palestinians land in return elsewhere. Palestinian leaders say land swaps may be possible. But the issue will be particularly sensitive in negotiating the future status of Jerusalem.
Writing by Alastair Macdonald, Editing by Samia Nakhoul