George Bush should tell Ariel Sharon that the United States is unequivocally opposed to all Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Human Rights Watch said as the U.S. president and Israeli prime minister met.
In a letter to Bush, Human Rights Watch also called for the creation of a U.S.-led monitoring committee. This committee of representatives from the international community, chaired by the United States, would carry out on-the-ground documentation and aerial surveillance of settlement activity and report its findings publicly. Despite the past policy of both Republican and Democratic governments, the Bush administration did not penalize Israel in 2004 by deducting from annual loan guarantees the amount spent on settlement construction.
“Bush needs to make it clear that the U.S. cannot accept illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank in exchange for the evacuation of Gaza settlers,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
As long as Israeli settlers—which now number more than 400,000—remain in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Israeli government’s forthcoming withdrawal of approximately 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements would not fulfill its obligations under international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said.
Israel's policy of encouraging, financing, establishing, and expanding Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories violates two main principles of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party, states are prohibited from transferring civilians from the occupying power's territory into the occupied territory, and from creating permanent changes in the occupied territory that are not for the benefit of the occupied population.
“Israel is not only violating international law in expanding its settlements, but also its commitments under the ‘road map’ to freeze them,” said Whitson. “Israel must evacuate its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in order to uphold its responsibilities as an occupying power.”
In the April 2003 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.
An aerial survey that Peace Now conducted between March and June 2004 showed settlement expansion underway in 73 locations in the West Bank. On November 3, 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 from the same period in 2003. An Israeli official told the Tel Aviv-based newspaper Yediot Aharonot on February 21, “In the past two years, construction plans that hadn’t been approved for years were approved by the defense minister.”
Human Rights Watch also raised serious concerns regarding the fact that Israel has constructed parts of its eight-meter-high “wall” deep inside the West Bank, contrary to international humanitarian law, creating pockets of land called “Seam Zones” or “Closed Zones” between the wall and the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice Line, or de facto border between Israel and the West Bank). The ostensible purpose of the wall – to stop suicide-bombing attacks on civilians, which Human Rights Watch has characterized as crimes against humanity – does not justify placing the wall inside the occupied West Bank. These zones, though part of the West Bank, fall on the other side of the wall. Human Rights Watch cited plans for substantial settlement expansion in the Zufin and Alfei Menashe settlements, in the Closed Zone around the Palestinian city of Qalqiliya in the northern West Bank.
“Palestinians in the West Bank are increasingly trapped between the wall and the settlements,” said Whitson. “Harsh restrictions on their movement are cutting them off from family, jobs, healthcare and education.”
While there is widespread international support for the position that Israeli settlement policy violates international humanitarian law, the international community, including the United States, has failed to hold Israel accountable to its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention to cease all settlement activity.