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Once Upon A Time in Palestine: A Tragic Tale of Israeli Settlements and U.S. Foreign Policy

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Helena Lindholm | 27 November 2019

The wall dividing the West Bank and Israel, photograph taken by the author.

Once upon a time, there was a peace process. Or so it was called. It was named the ‘Oslo process’ due to Norwegian involvement, and it was a step-by-step approach with the intention of reaching a solution to the protracted conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The agreement was signed on the South Lawn of the White House on a sunny September-day in 1993, and the staging was indeed like a fairy-tale. Finally, there was significant rapprochement between arch-enemies. The Oslo process was not a ‘peace agreement’, but represented a path to peace, with a two-state solution of some territorial design as the end-goal. The world applauded, the leading figures of the drama, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairperson Yassir Arafat were awarded the Nobel peace prize, and a (short) era of optimism ensued. Maybe the process, which has been intensely criticized and derailed already in 1996, was doomed to failure from its inception. Or maybe it was a serious attempt to build a basis of trust and security upon which the fundamental questions of the conflict could be resolved. We will never know.

What we do know, however, 26 years after the signature, is that the goal of a two-state solution is now dead with little chance of resuscitation in the near future. The territory that was to be negotiated, the bulk of the West Bank, is today under the firm grip of Israeli control. The landscape has been fragmented, devastated to the extent that there is little land to negotiate about. At all. That grip was only tightened by last week’s unprecedented announcement by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, declaring that the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are not, necessarily, a violation of international law. This was, in turn, only the latest in a series of US actions that further endorse and affirm the Israeli position towards the so-called ‘fundamental issues’ named in the Oslo-process.

The fundamental issues laid out in the Oslo-process included the definition of the actual borders between Israel and a Palestinian entity; long-term security arrangements for both states; control over Jerusalem; the future of refugees; and, of course, Israeli settlements in the West Bank. One by one, the Trump administration has taken those issues off the agenda.

It all started with the 2018 decision to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Established in 1949, UNRWA is the only organization that has provided relief, welfare, and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian refugees violently displaced from their homes and ancestral lands in 1948. Today, those refugees and their descendants amount to 5.5 million people, the majority of whom are stateless. The refugees and the resolution of their predicament remain at the core of the conflict. The UN General Assembly still maintains the refugees’ right to return. Through cutting aid to UNRWA, the Trump administration signalled that the refugee question was no longer relevant, let alone critical.

The next step was to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This executive order effectively ‘recognized’ Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, despite the fact that the future and status of the city was supposed to be negotiated during the peace process. The move was implemented in May 2018, coinciding with the intensification of Palestinian protests in the Gaza Strip under the name of the Great Return March. On that very date, Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, celebrated together with his wife; Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump; and Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner; while 62 Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli Defence Forces at the Gaza fence. The world watched on in disbelief. And so, the US underlined its support for Israel in the historical contestation over Jerusalem— a place of sacred importance to both Israelis and Palestinians.

Support for Israeli settlement politics was the next logical step in US policy. In itself, the move was not surprising, but nevertheless devastating. Since Oslo, the geography of the West Bank has been mutilated and cut into slices, where Israel controls the majority of the land through its hegemonic dominance in the C-areas. The so-called Separation Barrier further strangles Palestinian economic, political, social, and cultural life, cutting deep into the territory and restricting Palestinian mobility. The very route of the wall follows Israeli designs for annexation. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, currently under deep internal political pressure, has vowed to annex large parts of the West Bank in ‘coordination’ with Donald Trump. There are today around 620,000 settlers in the West Bank according to Israeli human rights organization Bt’selem. According to the 4th Geneva Convention, it is illegal for an ‘occupying power to transfer parts of its own population into’ occupied territory. A UN Security Council resolution from 2016 affirms the illegal status of settlements. The U.S. abstained from voting when this resolution was passed but did not use its veto. Despite increasing settler violence, particularly in the city of Hebron, the Trump administration’s recent policy shift signals that the US supports the settler presence in the West Bank.

The latest moves in U.S. politics support Israeli land encroachment. All those steps appear to be part of the announced but yet to be released US Middle East Peace Plan, the ‘deal of the century’. If changes in US foreign policy under Trump are any indication, this deal will give Jerusalem to Israel, support Israeli land annexation through settlements, and take refugees out of the picture. What’s left of the two-state solution and what’s in it for the Palestinians? A whole lot of nothing.

As long as the U.S. continues to disregard international law and international agreements, this will remain a tragic tale with no happy ending.


Helena Lindholm is professor in peace and development research at the School of Global Studies. She has a long record of research in the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. Her current research focuses on Palestinian refugees, diaspora, and transnationalism.


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