Mideast Killings Highlight a Growing Crisis Over Settlements

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Young victims: Palestinian baby Iman Hajo; Israelis Kobi Mendel and Yosef Ishran

A four-month old Palestinian girl's life blasted away by an Israeli tank shell in a Gaza refugee camp; two fresh-faced Israeli adolescents found stoned to death and mutilated in a cave near Bethlehem… The savagery of the violent Israeli-Palestinian stalemate in the West Bank and Gaza appeared to be escalating this week, with every new outrage fueling the fires of revenge and reaffirming — in their own minds, at least — each side’s claim to the righteousness of letting their weapons do the negotiating. Peace, right now, is a fantasy of yesteryear, and each new lifeless child committed to the contested ground of the West Bank and Gaza pushes it a little further beyond reach.

And while the eye-for-an-eye blood feud escalates on the ground, Washington is growing increasingly alarmed at the inability of the region's political leaders to bring the violence under control. In part, that is because the flash-point of that violence is fast becoming become the network of Israeli settlements dotted throughout the West Bank and Gaza, built after those lands were captured by Israel in the war of 1967. Palestinian militants have begun to make the settlements the focus of their mortar and shooting attacks, and when Yasser Arafat has — under pressure from Washington — called for an end to such attacks, he has simply been ignored. The settlements are an appealing target for the militants not only because are they universally hated by Palestinians as the product of confiscation under the power of occupation, but also because even Israel's closest ally — the United States — has little sympathy for the policy of settling Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, many Israelis themselves have little truck with the desire of the settlers, who are mostly motivated by religious or nationalist passions, to live in these predominantly Palestinian territories. Indeed, the future of the settlements had been subject to Israeli-Palestinian negotiation in the now-defunct Oslo peace process.

A champion of the settlers

But while his predecessor was prepared to negotiate away many of the settlements, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has historically been a fierce advocate of the settlement movement for both security and ideological reasons. And on Tuesday he flatly rejected Washington's call to freeze settlement activity as one of the requirements for a cease-fire with Palestinians. Sharon built his political career in large part as a champion of the settlers, and although he accepted a freeze on building new settlements as a condition for getting the Labor Party into his unity government, he is committed to an aggressive expansion of existing settlements (Israeli media reported Tuesday that Sharon was planning to spend $350 million expanding existing settlements). The news set off alarm bells in Washington, because though there are plenty of reasons for doubting whether Yasser Arafat has either the political will or the capacity to rein in Palestinian militants, it is a relative certainty that no cease-fire will even be signed without Israel agreeing to some form of settlement freeze.

Conflict between a Bush administration and a Likud Party-led government over settlements certainly has a familiar ring — the same issue provoked a public fallout between the first Bush administration and the government of Yitzhak Shamir, in which Washington threatened to withhold financial aid if Israel went ahead with settlement construction. This time around, both sides will be inclined to fight shy of a public confrontation, but there will inevitably be some tough diplomatic bargaining behind closed doors.

A growing gulf

This week's killings, though, are a reminder that resolving the settlement standoff may be getting harder all the time — the more settlers are killed and maimed, the more difficult it becomes for Sharon to sell any compromise on settlement activity to his own supporters. And in the absence of any resumption of political negotiations, Arafat may have a hard time finding the will or the political authority to curb attacks on the settlers. Then again, the settlements are only one of a number of issues on which the gulf between the two sides has grown considerably since last year's Camp David talks. The only certainty, now, is that many more men, women and children will die on both sides as the Israelis and Palestinians try to wear down each other's resistance by attrition. And the most chilling fact of all may be that the hard men on both sides believe that time is on their side.