Kerry Israel Trip: Ending Settlements and Gaza Blockade Should Be Top Priority


In a further push to the Middle East peace process started by U.S. president Barack Obama's visit last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is currently touring the Palestinian territories and Israel to help kick start a negotiated settlement. Last Sunday, Kerry met with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas, hoping to ease the concerns of the West Bank, promising an economic recovery of the occupied territory. This week he also met with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to on issues of security and a roadmap for a two-state solution.

Regrettably, the Obama led government's futile and partisan efforts in its first four years have yielded no commendable result. Netanyahu’s consistent stubbornness and provocative behavior has made imposing a viable peace plan impossible. The West Bank settlements and the choking blockade of Gaza are perhaps the most contentious matters that need to be addressed.

The settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem contain nearly 500,000 people and form the crux of the Israeli government's illegal activities in the area. Brazil's ambassador to the UN, Maria Vito, describes the settlements as outright illegal. She says "Halting construction has been misrepresented as an Israeli concession while in fact international law requires it."

In her book, The One State Solution, Virginia Tilley argues that the building of settlements have achieved their hidden purpose; that the "territorial basis for a viable Palestinian state no longer exists." Their scattered nature makes it impossible for any evacuation of settlers from the occupied areas. Tilley describes settlement projects as "burrowed deep" in Palestinian territory.

The investment poured into the settlements has come at an enormous cost for successive Israeli governments. In May 2010, a report by the Macro Center for Political Economics estimated that the colonies took a staggering $17 billion to construct, if not more. Tilley asserts that the settlements are not only expanding, but the interconnected network of road and rails that link the settlements will not be easily dismantled considering the insurmountable amount dispensed on the project.

Repeated calls to halt construction of the illegal settlement plans have fallen on deaf ears. While the Obama administration has been advocating (though in timid fashion) that Israel freeze any future plans to construct settlements, Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition have defied the Americans at every turn.

On Wednesday, Kerry was in for a rude awakening. A senior official of the Israeli government claimed that "Israel opposes placing the issues of borders and security at the preliminary stage of negotiations, and we said this to Kerry."

Last year as the UN voted to give the Palestinians a non-member state recognition, the very next day Israel announced plans to build 3000 homes in the E-1 area of Jerusalem. It received worldwide condemnation for its actions. Countries such the UK and Spain recalled their ambassadors in protest of the move.

An issue of less concern for the Obama administration is the soul crushing and mentally decapitating blockade of the Gaza strip. Under Obama's reign, peace talks have largely focused on negotiations with their counterparts in the West Bank, whereas the dire plea of the Gazan people has been largely ignored, spun as a consequence of the ruling regime of Hamas. Israel and the U.S. consider Hamas a terrorist outfit, ruling out any peace settlement with the religiously-inclined political entity. Netanyahu, in a shocking apology to Turkey over the 2010 Marvi Marmara disaster, sternly announced that this does not affect the situation in Gaza.

The blockade has left the Palestinians in a state of severe desperation. The restriction of basic supplies or any other activity has forced many to live well below the poverty line. A UN report in August last year estimated that an unemployment rate of over 30% exists in Gaza. The gross domestic product per capita has decreased since the 90s from $1,327 in 1994 to approximately $1,165 (adjusted for inflation), the report further claims.

Fishing, a crucial sector of the Gazan economy, has now become worse with the tightening of the blockade. Israel now only allows 3 nautical miles of the coast of Gaza for Palestinians to fish instead of 6 miles previously allotted. Many Gazan fishermen have suffered immensely; many have left the trade as a result of the restrictions especially since the Hamas led government took control of the strip.

In my last article, I had argued that Hamas be engaged in the process rather than pushed away. While its tactics remain highly condemnable, including its atrocious rocket attacks on southern Israel, it has shown the maturity to be a reasonable partner in negotiations, while at the same time keeping more radical factions of the organization at bay.

Yet if the U.S. fails to realize the potential to include Hamas, while ignoring Israel's suffocation of the Gaza people, it is likely give birth (if not already) to rogue and more radical organizations that are Hell-bent on destroying any chance for peace.

Without a serious effort on resolving the settlement issue or ending the blockade of Gaza, little is to come of Kerry's trip, and the results have vindicated this sentiment. Having been overtly concurring to Israel's demands, the Obama-led administration's effort may be better served elsewhere.