Hopes For Palestinian State Fade As Israeli Settlements Expand In West Bank : NPR

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Israeli settlers celebrate the Jewish Purim holiday at al-Shuhada street in the divided West Bank town of Hebron, on March 21.

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Israeli settlers celebrate the Jewish Purim holiday at al-Shuhada street in the divided West Bank town of Hebron, on March 21.

Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

When it came down to a final issue for Israeli voters to ponder before Tuesday’s election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an extraordinary campaign pledge: If re-elected, he said on Saturday, he would annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Such a move would represent a dramatic, far-right policy change for Israel, staking a permanent claim over lands Palestinians demand for their own state. Even if it is an election tactic to energize his nationalist base, Netanyahu’s annexation pledge is a fitting final chord to a decade of his administration, which began with a reluctant embrace of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ended with the chances of such an outcome dwindling to a new low point. Since Netanyahu returned to office in 2009, the Jewish settler movement has grown in size and influence. That evolution was apparent last month in the West Bank city of Hebron. In one of the West Bank’s tensest cities — where several hundred Israeli settlers live in guarded enclaves among some 200,000 Palestinians — Israelis dressed up in costume and paraded down the main street. It was the Jewish carnival holiday of Purim, but the settlers were celebrating more than just the religious festivities.

In January, they had successfully lobbied Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to expel an international observer group, tasked with patrolling Hebron and making Palestinians in the city feel safe after an Israeli settler killed 29 Palestinian worshippers there on Purim in 1994.

Chicago native and Hebron settler Yisrael Zeev is in costume as a pipe-smoking farmer and driving a float in the Purim holiday parade. A red swath from the uniform of an international observer from the recently expelled Temporary International Presence in Hebron flutters on a pole.

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Chicago native and Hebron settler Yisrael Zeev is in costume as a pipe-smoking farmer and driving a float in the Purim holiday parade. A red swath from the uniform of an international observer from the recently expelled Temporary International Presence in Hebron flutters on a pole.

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“We will not allow the continuation of an international force that acts against us,” Netanyahu said in a statement about the Temporary International Presence in Hebron. Settlers accused the organization of causing friction and undermining Israeli rule in the city. But member countries of the group criticized the closure of the mission, saying the observers “promoted conflict resolution between Israelis and Palestinians” and helped prevent violence.

It was Netanyahu, during his first term in office in 1996, who had allowed for the founding of the unarmed civilian group. “Apparently they were very temporary, and we are the permanent Israeli presence in Hevron,” said Yisrael Zeev, an Israeli settler in the city, calling the city by its Hebrew name. Zeev drove a float in the parade dressed as an American farmer, with a swath of an observer’s uniform flapping from a pole like the flag of a vanquished enemy. Some settlers, including a candidate for national elections, dressed in costume as the expelled international observers.

Israeli settlers celebrate the Jewish Purim holiday at al-Shuhada street in the divided West Bank town of Hebron.

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Israeli settlers celebrate the Jewish Purim holiday at al-Shuhada street in the divided West Bank town of Hebron.

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“Everything’s going in the right direction,” Zeev said. Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, and has occupied it ever since. Both Israelis and Palestinians have historical ties there. In 2009, a few months after entering office, Netanyahu gave a speech that has become famous: For the first time, he publicly called for the creation of Palestinian state. He was facing pressure from then-President Obama, who advocated for a Palestinian state alongside Israel: a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it didn’t stop Netanyahu from enlarging Jewish settlements in the occupied land. Apart from a 10-month settlement construction freeze at Obama’s request, Netanyahu’s government has continued to build homes for Israelis in the West Bank, leaving the map of what could be left for a Palestinian state looking like Swiss cheese.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is depicted in a poster in Hebron, calling on him to restore Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank that were uprooted by a former prime minister in 2005.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is depicted in a poster in Hebron, calling on him to restore Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank that were uprooted by a former prime minister in 2005.

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About three-quarters of the construction has taken place in settlements deep in the West Bank “that Israel will probably need to evict in the framework of a two-state agreement,” said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, a settlement watchdog group that examines aerial photos to count each settlement unit built. The homes range from spacious U.S. suburb-style homes to multifamily structures to trailers set up on a hill. “Every year they build at least 2,000 units, which means thousands of new settlers every year in the West Bank,” Ofran said. “If we want to have peace, specifically where Netanyahu is building is in places that will be harder to compromise.” The phenomenon of completely new settlements, which Israel previously stopped, was renewed during Netanyahu’s tenure. Settlers built a few dozen small outposts without government permission but with Israel largely turning a blind eye, Ofran said.

By the time Netanyahu ran for re-election in 2015, he vocally opposed a Palestinian state. Recently, according to Peace Now figures, Israel has advanced more plans for settlement construction, with little opposition from President Trump. “The evolution isn’t just that [Netanyahu has] gone more to the right. It’s that the entire country has gone more to the right, because the Palestinians have killed a lot of their support in Israel,” said Israeli political analyst Reuven Hazan. Most of the Israeli public doesn’t believe a peace deal is possible now, he said, with instability in the Middle East and a fractured Palestinian leadership divided between the militant Hamas in Gaza and a weakened Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. “The prospects of a peace partner or a viable peace process is not something that you can sell to the man or woman on the street, nor can you win an election on today,” Hazan said.

Mufid Sharabati, a Palestinian, on his roof in Hebron.

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Mufid Sharabati, a Palestinian, on his roof in Hebron.

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In the runup to Tuesday’s elections, two dozen senior government ministers and lawmakers released video statements endorsing a policy once considered fringe. Instead of negotiating with Palestinians about the West Bank, they’re calling for Israel to unilaterally annex parts of it. Netanyahu resisted that move for years. But last month, following Trump’s backing of Israel’s annexation of land it captured from Syria in 1967, Netanyahu argued Israel has the right to keep land it seized in war.

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