Teszler: Stop the Settlements

The U.S. should condition its foreign aid to Israel on the cessation of settlements in the West Bank.

by Max Teszler | 6/1/21 2:05am

In 2013, shortly before the last conflict between Israel and Gaza, the population of Israel’s West Bank settlements stood at just under 325,000 people. Eight years later, by the start of the most recent conflict — an 11-day war that claimed the lives of more than 200 — the population has surged to 475,000, and in the process, thousands of Palestinians have been displaced and seen their homes destroyed. Though last month’s conflict was centered in Gaza, where Israel has no outposts, the violence was precipitated by Israeli police raids and crackdowns on Palestinian protests — including protests against planned evictions of Palestinian residents from their homes in East Jerusalem — as well as violence from a far-right Israeli settlement organization, Lehava. Illegal Israeli settlements are the main problem, and the U.S., through the billions in foreign aid it offers to Israel each year, has unique leverage to stop them. Israel's continuing encroachment on the West Bank leads to violence and directly infringes on Palestinian human rights and sovereignty. The U.S. should halt foreign aid to Israel until it commits to ending settlement of the area.

Israeli raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque — located in territory internationally recognized as Palestinian but occupied by Israel — and violence by far-right settlers were the flashpoint of this latest war, part of a familiar pattern of West Bank encroachment driving tension. Provocation by Israeli settlers is anything but unusual — right-wing groups conduct marches through East Jerusalem annually on the anniversary of Israel’s capture of the city. Settlements further out in the West Bank are also a frequent source of strain. Over the past decade, there has been a regular drumbeat of violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians. Powerless to stop the abuses, Palestinians have been forced to vacate their homes to make way for ever-expanding settlements and military installations. All these abuses occur on land Israel has no right to in the first place, seized following the 1967 Six-Day War. The international consensus holds that this land is occupied land outside of Israel's borders, thus making settlement of the occupied West Bank illegal. 

Yet the U.S. response to Israeli actions in the West Bank has been, at best, wholly insufficient. Responsibility truly does fall on the U.S., Israel’s most important ally, to address this issue. The international community has continually and forcefully criticized the settlements, yet Israel has ignored these pleas. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. allowed the UN Security Council to condemn the settlements by abstaining from use of its veto power. But just when it looked like the U.S. might finally take a firmer stance toward Israel, former President Donald Trump came into office and the growth of settlements surged. Under Trump's leadership, the State Department stopped classifying the settlements as illegal, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even visited Israeli communities in the West Bank. At best, U.S. administrations weakly criticize these illegal settlements; at worse, they seem to wholeheartedly encourage them. 

With Israel currently in a strong position to defend itself, conditioning future military aid to Israel on ceasing settlements should no longer be out of the question — the current administration must make use of the chance it has to act. Since Israel’s founding, the U.S. has provided $146 billion in military and development aid to the country, and continues to provide around $3 to $4 billion in military assistance annually. Unconditional support of Israel has long been a bipartisan proposition, a reflection of a time when Israel’s enemies were primarily neighboring countries that presented an existential threat to the nation. But the country’s main adversary is now the terrorist group, Hamas, over which Israel has a massive military advantage. Meanwhile, thanks to recent peace treaties with two Arab states, the list of Israel’s enemy countries has grown shorter.  While one country, Iran, does remain as a serious potential threat to Israel, previous interactions with Tehran — including the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which succeeded in limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities before it was dismantled by the Trump administration — demonstrate that diplomacy, rather than unconditioned military aid, can successfully protect Israel.  Thus, given the existence of a viable path to peacefully normalizing relations with Iran and the successful normalization of relations with more and more Arab countries,  U.S. leadership should re-evaluate the longtime military aid it has provided.

This new reality is not totally ignored in Washington — a few left-leaning Democratic senators and representatives have called to condition portions of military aid on Israel upholding human rights. Yet many of these proposed measures have been nebulous or do not support placing conditions on all of Israel’s aid, and thus fail to address the root problem of ever-expanding Israeli settlements.  Around its settlements, Israel has constructed concrete and barbed-wire border walls and maintains a permanent military presence to protect them. Such encroachments have systematically carved up areas of Palestinian control, dividing the remaining Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank into a patchwork of isolated cities and villages. Shortly before he left office, former President Barack Obama acknowledged this reality, noting that “the facts on the ground are making it almost impossible...to create a contiguous, functioning Palestinian state.” If we are serious about a genuine two-state future — which President Joe Biden claims to want and international law demands — then these settlements must cease as quickly as possible.

Ending our decades-long military aid to Israel might be the only chance we have of a reset. Our protection of Israel must be based on it upholding democratic norms and human rights — we cannot continue to give Israel an unconditional check to do as it pleases. Israel does not need this aid to survive as a country — after generations of military aid, Israel has one of the most technologically-advanced militaries on Earth, and as a wealthy country can afford to pay for defense out of its own pocket. Yet our annual military support continues regardless, providing an implicit assurance that, no matter the abuses Israel carries out, nothing will really change in the U.S.-Israel relationship. For decades, we have shielded Israel from the true consequences of its actions — we shouldn't be surprised that its abuses continue. Conditioning military aid on ceasing settlements would send a billion dollar signal of our commitment to a lasting peace that preserves Palestinian sovereignty.

When Israeli settlers regularly march through Palestinian neighborhoods chanting “death to Arabs,” something has seriously gone wrong in the supposed sole democracy of the Middle East. The expansion of West Bank settlements has pushed Israel in an extreme direction and whittled away hope for a true Palestinian state. Words alone have failed to stop this problem — if Israel wants to keep receiving our aid, it must commit itself to upholding Palestinian sovereignty and halt West Bank settlements immediately.