I am writing to you regarding your meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. At this critical juncture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is imperative that your administration states its unequivocal opposition to all Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

I am writing to you regarding your meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. At this critical juncture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is imperative that your administration states its unequivocal opposition to all Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

As you know, Israel’s continuing settlement activity is a violation of international humanitarian law, United Nations Security Council resolutions, and Israel’s own commitments under the U.S.-sponsored “road map” of April 2003.

Israel's policy of encouraging, financing, establishing, and expanding Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) violates two main principles of international humanitarian law: the prohibition on the transfer of civilians from the occupying power's territory into the occupied territory, and the prohibition on creating permanent changes in the occupied territory that are not for the benefit of the occupied population. In particular, Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that "[t]he Occupying Power shall not …transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

There is widespread international support for the position that Israeli settlement policy violates international humanitarian law; yet the international community, including the United States, has failed to hold Israel accountable to its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention to cease Israeli settlement activity. The maintenance and expansion of the settlements have seriously affected humanitarian conditions in Palestinian communities. Israel should evacuate its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in order to uphold its responsibilities as an occupying power.

General statements by U.S. officials that Israel should abide by its commitments under the road map do not go far enough. First, the United States should explicitly state its opposition to all settlement expansion, such as the recent Israeli announcement that it plans to build 3,500 new housing units in the Maaleh Adumim settlement bloc. Second, the United States should implement immediately a mechanism to monitor settlement expansion. A monitoring committee, chaired by the U.S. and with representatives from the international community, should carry out documentation on the ground and aerial surveillance of settlement activity and report their findings publicly. Third, the U.S. should bring strong pressure to bear on Israel for continued settlement activity. In the past, the U.S. has deducted from its annual loan guarantees to Israel an amount equal to Israel’s expenditures on settlement expansion. For example, in 2003, $170 million was deducted as a “settlement expansion penalty” from available guarantees. However, in 2004 your administration did not make similar deductions. I strongly urge you to resume this policy while restating the principle that Israel should abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law.

While the forthcoming withdrawal of approximately 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements is a step in the right direction, this move cannot be construed as fulfilling Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law as long as over 400,000 settlers remain in the West Bank including East Jerusalem. We are particularly concerned with news reports describing the Israeli government's view that while it remains an occupying power it can "swap" the evacuation of the Gaza settlements in return for tacit U.S. support for continued settlement activity in the West Bank. The United States should ensure that its declarative diplomacy and foreign policy do not provide implicit or explicit support for unlawful Israeli settlement activity.

Under the “road map,” Israel agreed to freeze all settlement activity, including “natural growth,” and to dismantle all settlement outposts created since March 2001. Israel has failed to meet either of these provisions, and instead has substantially expanded settlements during this period. According to an aerial survey conducted between March and June 2004 by Peace Now, settlement expansion was under way at that time in 73 locations. On November 3, 2004, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported the sale of 306 new units in West Bank settlements from January to August 2004, a 33 percent increase compared with sales from the same period in 2003. In an article in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot on February 21, 2005, reporter Nahum Barnea wrote that an Israeli government official told him, “In the past two years, construction plans that hadn’t been approved for years were approved by the defense minister.”

Israel has accelerated settlement activity in conjunction with its construction of a metal and concrete barrier, (referred to as a “wall” by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and herein, the “wall”). The Israeli government has explained the need for the wall based on its need to protect its citizens from attacks such as suicide bombings – attacks that Human Rights Watch has found to be crimes against humanity. However, the Israeli government has not built the wall on Israeli territory or along the 1967 Armistice Line (the Green Line), but, in some areas, deep inside the West Bank, contrary to international law, as confirmed by the ICJ in July 2004. Where the wall intrudes into the West Bank, Israel has created a “Seam Zone,” or “Closed Zone,” of West Bank territory that lies to the east of the Green Line but to the west of the wall. Palestinian residents in those areas are subject to extremely harsh restriction on their freedom of movement, which severely limits their access to jobs, land, family, healthcare and educational services, with devastating economic and social consequences.

Settlement expansion in the Closed Zone is visible with the naked eye as well as from satellite imagery. In some areas, such as Alfei Menashe and Ariel, billboards advertise newly constructed settlement homes for sale. In order not to be construed as new settlements, the building in these areas is often referred to as “new neighborhoods” connected to an already existing settlement “hub.” In the Closed Zone area of Alfei Menashe, south of Qalqiliya, the settlement is expanding into the “new neighborhoods” of Kaniyel, Elonit and Givat Tal. After this expansion, Alfe Menashe, with a population of 5,000, will almost double in size. In Zufin, north of Qalqiliya, Israel is planning an additional 1,670 units in a settlement that currently houses 900 people. The expansion of both of these settlements will fill the area between the Green Line and the wall with new buildings and new settlers.

A similar pattern is unfolding along other sections of the wall in the Closed Zone, leading to fears that Israel intends to retain these areas under its permanent control. In its June 2004 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) warned that “the construction of the wall and its associated regime create a ‘fait accompli’ on the ground that could well become permanent, in which case, and notwithstanding the formal characterization of the wall by Israel, it would be tantamount to de facto annexation” (para 121).

In light of this information, I urge you to bring your decisive influence to bear in ending Israel’s unlawful settlement activity. I thank you for your attention to this matter and hope that our position will be reflected in your ongoing discussions with Prime Minister Sharon.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Leah Whitson
Executive Director, Middle East North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch