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What growing Jewish settlements in the West Bank mean for Mideast peace efforts

April 4, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
More than a half million Israelis live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank -- land they see as a biblical birthright, but that international law contends is occupied territory, and that Palestinians hope will comprise a future state. Special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Jordan’s King Abdullah will meet with President Trump tomorrow here in Washington.

One item on the agenda: the growth of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. More than half-a-million Israelis live there on land captured from Jordan 50 years ago, land that many Israelis claim as a biblical birthright, but that Palestinians hope will comprise a future state.

From the West Bank, special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Israeli soldiers and police mobilizing in the West Bank to arrest and remove Israelis, by force if necessary, a settler outpost at Amona judged by Israeli courts to be illegal because it is built on land owned by Palestinians.

The West Bank was captured by Israel during the 1967 war. International law considers it occupied territory. Israel disputes this and has been building Jewish settlements for decades. Amona is different. It’s one of the settlements built without Israeli government authorization on private Palestinian land.

No government wants to use troops against its own citizens, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. So, as the protesting settlers were taken away, he announced plans for a major settlement expansion in another area of the West Bank.

Netanyahu also promised to build a new settlement for the Jews evicted from Amona. He delivered on that promise, announcing plans for the first completely new settlement in over 20 years. It will be built in the Shilo area, near Nablus, a powerful message in support of these settlers and one of their beliefs that God gave these lands to the Jews.

HAGAI BEN ARTZI, Beit El Resident: We’re standing on this site of the dream of Jacob.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Not far from Amona, Hagai Ben Artzi points to ruins that he says mark the biblical site of Jacob’s Ladder, the dream where God promised the land of Israel to the Jewish people in the Book of Genesis.

HAGAI BEN ARTZI: The roots of the people of Israel are in this place, and the whole Zionist idea is the return of the Jewish people to the biblical land, to its biblical homeland.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Ben Artzi is the brother-in-law of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and a prominent citizen of Beit El, one of nearly 200 settlements across the West Bank. He has lived here for 40 years.

Like many settlements, Beit El started out as a few caravans on a hilltop. Osnat Sharon is one of the original settlers. She calls this area by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria.

OSNAT SHARON, Beit El Resident: I felt like a pioneer, to build a new place in an empty place, and there was nothing here, nothing.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Palestinians argue that the whole settlement is illegal because of international law, and that at least part of Beit El was built on private land, farmland that they say they haven’t been able to use for years. The issue is still in court and that section of Beit El remains off-limits to building.

The rest of Beit El has boomed since those early days, nearly 7,000 people today, permanent buildings, a supermarket, playgrounds, like any small town. They come from Israel, from different countries, many from the U.S. One study estimates 15 percent of the settlers in the West Bank are American, and they all believe that it is their right to be here.

Less than a mile from the playgrounds of Beit El, Palestinian children are at recess at a Ramallah school. Ramallah is the seat of government for the Palestinian Authority, and under its control. Israeli soldiers control access points to the city, and Palestinians say soldiers routinely conduct raids, often in the middle of the night.

Access to farmland is severely restricted. The job market here is limited. Settlements like Beit El are built on land the Palestinians hope will be part of their future state. The settlements are often a focal point of Palestinian anger, leading to clashes with settlers and Israeli soldiers who control the lands where the settlements are built.

Hard-line Palestinians still believe all of the West Bank and Israel is occupied land that belongs to them. There has been relative calm in the West Bank in recent months, the result of ongoing security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

Husam Zomlot is a senior adviser to Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas. He says using violence against Jewish settlers is counterproductive.

HUSAM ZOMLOT, Senior Adviser to Mahmoud Abbas: We don’t hate them. In fact, our histories with Jews have been an integral part of our national fabric. What we dislike, however, is occupiers, colonizers, the seizures, deniers of our very basic rights.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The tense, sometimes violent status quo that has gone on for decades defined by the enormous security wall built by Israel. It stretches for miles across the West Bank.

Settlers here in Beit El, like settlers across the West Bank, have often had a very complicated relationship with the United States, often perceived as both protector and enemy at the same time. The Obama administration in particular wasn’t seen as a friend of the settlers. The arrival of Donald Trump, on the other hand, is being welcomed here in Beit El.

They are hopeful it is the beginning of a new era.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Bibi and I have known each other for a long time, smart man, great negotiator, and I think we’re going to make a deal.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: But Netanyahu made his position clear.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Prime Minister, Israel: I believe that the issue of the settlements is not the core of the conflict, nor does it really drive the conflict.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Beit El’s new yeshiva for Jewish studies is reported to have White House connections. David Friedman, Trump’s new ambassador to Israel, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have donated money to this yeshiva. Trump has tapped Kushner to lead negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The broad parameters of the so-called two-state solution would give most of the West Bank to the Palestinians for their state. Israel would keep the major settlement blocks, which are close to the 1967 border. In exchange, it would give an equal amount of land to the Palestinians.

But it would mean dozens of settlements like Beit El would need to be evacuated. As many as 70,000 Jews live in these areas. The right-wing Jewish Home Party, led by Naftali Bennett, is part of Netanyahu’s coalition. It is pushing for unilateral annexation to bring all the settlements under Israeli control.

It is against the two-state idea, and it has pushed through a controversial law giving Israel the right to build on private Palestinian land seen by many as a de facto form of annexation.

Tzachi Hanegbi is a senior cabinet minister with close ties to Netanyahu. Hanegbi insists that the government remains committed to the two-state idea. He says the Jewish Home Party is in the minority.

TZACHI HANEGBI, Acting Communications Minister, Israel: The majority of Israelis, I would say an overwhelming majority, believe that there has to be a solution, a peaceful solution, which will not include the annexation.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: On the Israeli left, there are deep worries that continued construction will kill any chance for two states, a fear shared by the Palestinian leadership.

HANAN ASHRAWI, Palestinian Liberation Organization: We made a historical and painful compromise when we accepted the two-state solution, when we said OK, we will recognize, and we did recognize Israel. On 78 percent of our historical homeland, we did that. How much more do they want?

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: And ambiguous statements out of the White House about the two-state solution alarm Palestinians.

HUSAM ZOMLOT: If you are not going to support the two-state solution, the long-held U.S. policy, if you fail to clearly condemn the settlement expansion and the colonial grab of our land, then you better come up with an alternative for the equal number of population inhabiting this land and the six million Palestinians.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: And for the moment, the two sides have not agreed to even begin negotiations.

If you want to understand the division these issues are having on Israeli society, consider the words of Hagai Ben Artzi in Beit El, Netanyahu’s own brother-in-law, against the two-state solution, in favor of the right wing’s annexation plan.

HAGAI BEN ARTZI: If Netanyahu is not courageous enough to make that move, I will support other candidates for prime minister.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: A scenario that would lead to confrontation with the Palestinians, certainly politically, on the international stage, possibly a new eruption of violence in the West Bank.

Trump is promising new negotiations. And reports in Israeli media talk of a U.S.- sponsored summit involving the Palestinians, Israel and Arab leaders. Arab states remain committed to the two-state solution in return for recognition of Israel.

But they would also demand a freeze on all settlement construction. Neither Israel, the U.S. or any of the other potential players have confirmed that a summit is being planned. But Trump’s special representative attended Arab League meetings. Jason Greenblatt has had extensive discussions with all sides. He has stated that the time has come to make a deal.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Martin Seemungal in the West Bank.

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