No peace in Middle East without an end to illegal Israeli settlements

If the tit-for-tat violence in Israel, the occupied West Bank, and the Gaza Strip is to ever stop, then two things must be done immediately.

First, Yasser Arafat must be replaced as the head of the Palestinian Authority. Not just because he doesn't seem to be able to stop militants from attacking innocent Israelis, but also because his administration has become corrupt and undemocratic. His time has passed, and if the PA hopes to regain the confidence of both Israelis who want peace and the Palestinian people, the PA must act before organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad become too powerful to stop.

But there is another important issue that has disappeared from the radar screen as the attacks by both sides have become more violent, and as the Israeli government has announced it will not talk to Yasser Arafat any more because he can't be trusted as a partner -- the increasing number of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Inspite of the Israeli government's insistance that it has a "right' to create these settlements, they are all violations of international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, and fly in the face of more United Nations' resolutions and directives than you can shake a stick at.

When the Oslo Peace Accords were signed in 1993, there were 32,750 housing units in the illegal settlements -- more than 20,000 have been built since then, an increase of 62%. Hardly a sign that the Israeli government is serious about ending its occupation of Palestinian territories.

And here's an interesting fact that rarely is mentioned in the American media -- one reason Israel says it needs to built these settlements because the country's population is expanding and needs room to grow. Yet about eight percent of the settlements built in the West Bank, and about 40 percent in Gaza are empty. Meanwhile, the 'natural growth rate' of the population in Israel is two percent a year, while the growth in the illegal settlements in 8.5 percent a year. So the settlements are not being built for any other reason than to allow the illegal settlements themselves to expand, and not the general population of Israel.

One of the main road blocks to finding an workable solution to this problem is current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Most Palestinians consider him a war criminal because of his actions concerning the massacres at the Shabra and Shatilla refugee camps during the disastrous Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which Sharon masterminded. An Israeli court found him "indirectly responsible" for the massacres, and he was removed from the Israeli government at the time. (A court in Belgium is considering possible charges against Sharon for this incident). But that didn't finish him off. He returned in the early 90s and as Housing Minister, oversaw the largest expansion of Israeli settlements since the Six-Day War in 1967.

Sharon has consistently voted against peace with Israel's neighbors, including agreements with Egypt, Jordan and also the Oslo Accords. More than a few people believe that his controversial visit to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in east Jerusalem, accompanied by scores of police, was the main catalyst for the new intifada, that Sharon's government has now asked Arafat to denounce.

Since Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister in February of this year, 25 new settlements have been established and Peace Now, an Israeli organization, said in October that four more have been planned. Currently there are 400,000 Israelis leaving on land occupied in 1967.

Sharon has successfully shifted the spotlight away from the Israeli government's actions in regards to the illegal settlements, and how they are one of the main causes of violence in the region. Yet when former Senator George Mitchell prepared his now famous report which included recommendations on how to solve the Israeli-Palenstinian problem, he called for an immediate freeze on all new settlement, because he knew this was one of the main impedements to a long term peace. It was a call that the Sharon government has aggressively ignored.

So while Sharon calls upon Yasser Arafat to round up all the militants and end all violence (while making it practically impossible for him to do so by consistently blowing up his security facilitites), he ignores the requests that he stop his government's actions that contribute to the increasing violence. (Strangely enough, one of the reasons that Sharon's government gives for not dismantling the settlements, is that public opinion would never stand for it -- which is exactly the same reason that Arafat gives for why he cannot round up all the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants. Both statements are nothing more than flimsy attempts to hide true intentions.)

There will be no peace in the Middle East as long as these illegal settlements exist. And any peace agreement that tries to force the Palestinians into Bantuland-type cantons in order to 'protect' the illegal settlements will never be acceptable either, and the bloodshed on both sides will continue. (As the much-talked about Camp David Accord offer did last year -- it was also one of the main reasons Arafat turned it down. Also Ehud Barak's administration proved to be one of the most determined builder of new illegal settlements -- he even outbuilt Benjamin Netanyahu. This played a major -- very underreported -- role in undermining the Camp David Accords, inspite of the claims that it was Arafat's fault for turning down the deal.) And if the US government is going to put intensive heat on Arafat to rein in militants, it should be publicly doing the same thing to Sharon about the illegal settlements. If not, the Arab world will continue to consider the US a biased player in the peace game, and not an honest broker.

Ultimately, Israel does have every right to defend its citizens from the senseless acts of violence committed by suicide bombers and those who would terrorize innocent people. But if the Israel government refuses to deal with the fact that its own actions are helping to create the fuel that feeds these incidents, then they will still be trying to put out the fires of the intifada when our children's children are old and gray.

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