Don't Forget the West Bank

The world's attention is focused on Gaza right now, with protesters, diplomats, politicians and journalists almost completely attuned to that small strip of land. According to Haaretz, for example, the unblinking eyes of more than 400 foreign correspondents have been reporting from alongside the Gaza-Israel border for over a week now, 24 hours a day. It is precisely at such times - when reporters, foreign leaders and the Israeli security apparatus are distracted - that the most destructive events tend to happen in the West Bank, the other Palestinian entity, where Israeli rule and Palestinian life are more consistently intermeshed. This is exactly the sort of moment when major expansions in settlement infrastructure are likely to occur, and settler aggressiveness becomes more overt.

Such settlement growth occurred in 2001-2003, during the height of the second intifada, and in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, as well, when attention was focused elsewhere, much as is true of Gaza today. During the second intifada and primarily during the interval between the rise of Ariel Sharon's government, in March 2001, and the Aqaba summit in June 2003, the number of illegal settlement outposts doubled, reaching 102. Over the course of the bloody summer of 2002, I personally witnessed settlers, backed by the IDF, fencing off thousands of dunams of private Palestinian land.

This era was a test for the Israeli government, an examination of its ability to enforce the laws of the state on Israeli citizen-settlers. And, for the most part, the government failed that test. The massive land grabs during those years were undertaken with unconcealed encouragement from the Israeli government, which used them as another way to punish Palestinians for the unrest.

The 2006 war in Lebanon was also a significant growth period for West Bank settlements. During the war and in the months that followed, there was a marked increase in the number of mobile homes in 31 illegal settlement outposts, and 12 outposts were equipped with permanent structures. Solicitation of bids for settlement construction increased by more than 300 percent during the first nine months of 2006, compared to the corresponding period in the previous year.

For those of us whose day-to-day work and existence concerns the well-being of the civilian population of the West Bank, any further growth in settlements and the settler violence that almost always accompanies ad hoc settlement expansion would be disastrous. A blind eye and a lax hand from the authorities, distracted by the increasing violence in Gaza, would decisively set back all that we have been working for.

Over the past six months, those of us in the activist community have fought legal battles to stop the illegal expansion of the Ofra settlement onto private Palestinian land, and the growth of the Migron outpost, which was slated to expand based on a fabricated land deal that an investigation later revealed to have included both a Palestinian signature and U.S. notarization that were forged. We have watched Palestinian victims suffer at the hands of violent settler youth in Hebron and the Adei Ad area in the northern West Bank. Our tireless and sometimes thankless work has been to preserve the rights of Palestinian residents of the West Bank to keep their land, property and persons safe from settlers who treat Israeli and international law with total indifference.

It is precisely at times of major political and military upheaval that settlers have an opportunity to take back closed settlement outposts, expand onto Palestinian land or abuse property. Just over the past few days, while Gaza is being pounded, I have observed and documented two such examples: land being flattened for a new site near Etz Efraim, and construction work in an outpost near Kedumim. The military is distracted by conflict elsewhere, the courts are busy with other petitions, and the eyes of local and foreign diplomats and media are turned to Gaza. At times like these, the relationship between the legal authorities, settler communities, police enforcement and Israeli public opinion can be disastrously damaged.

One may disagree about the series of events over the past three years in Gaza - not only the settlement withdrawal, but the hasty elections, the crippling embargo, and the bisection of Palestinian society and communities. It is certainly true that the absence of Jewish settlers in Gaza has permanently altered the Israeli calculus about the area and its occupants. However, if and until we reach that position in the West Bank, we must continue to ensure that the protection of Palestinian persons, land and property be enforced.

With this in mind, it is especially critical that we not forget the 2.5 million Palestinians and almost 300,000 settlers in the West Bank. It is precisely at times like these that we must maintain the continuity of what has often felt like a losing battle - stopping settler growth on private Palestinian land, protecting Palestinian communities, preventing violence against Palestinians and their property, and providing maximum basic legal rights for every individual living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Dror Etkes is the coordinator of Yesh Din's Lands Project. He formerly directed Peace Now's Settlement Watch.