Israel's national flag flutters in the settlement of Ramat Shlomo November 4, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

Israel’s prime minister has set the agenda for his visit to Washington, DC: the impact on Israel’s security of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program. Disagreements over Iran may dominate the headlines, but Democrats and Republicans who are concerned about Israel’s security should realize that settlements are a security problem for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Israel typically justifies its harsh policies in the West Bank on security grounds, but since Binyamin Netanyahu took office in 2009, Israel has begun construction on more than 10,000 housing units there for Israeli civilians.

Israel assigns soldiers to protect these civilians, for whose safety it proclaims the need to build expensive special roads, walls and checkpoints. Those measures failed this summer, when Palestinian gunmen abducted and killed three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank – sparking a massive military operation.

Palestinians experience insecurity when Israel takes away their land and gives it to settlements. Israel exclusively controls more than 60 percent of the West Bank. It has allocated about 1 percent of that land for Palestinian development, but 70 percent to settlements. Israel prohibits Palestinians in that area from farming or building homes without military permits, but the military denies almost all Palestinian permit applications and demolishes “illegal” homes – leaving 5,450 people homeless during Netanyahu’s term. Meanwhile some settlers have so much farmland that they are renting some of it back to Palestinians.

Unsurprisingly, settlements are flashpoints for confrontation; many arrests of Palestinian children, often for throwing stones, occur near settlements. When Palestinians attack settlers they are subject to a military justice system that finds 99.74 percent of suspects guilty.

But when settlers attack, Israel applies domestic criminal laws, providing protections denied to Palestinians, and investigations are slapdash. The police close about 91 percent of these investigations without filing indictments. The result is that settlers, undeterred, have continued their attacks in the West Bank – destroying nearly 54,000 Palestinian olive trees since January 1, 2010.

US pressure on Israel to dismantle the settlements would help bolster, not endanger, security. It should apply such pressure in line with international law, which prohibits the transfer of civilians into occupied territory as a war crime. And it should end tax breaks for donations to US-registered organizations that support unlawful settlements.