(WATCH) The Israeli Settlements

It has become a challenge for every U.S. president over the past five decades: the fragile dynamic between America, Israel, and the Palestinians. President Biden has announced he’ll visit Israel later this year, and when he does, he’ll be pressed to address one of the thorniest of all geo-political issues in the Mideast: the so-called settlements. Scott Thuman reports.

Ramallah — it’s about 13 miles north of Jerusalem and has the look and feel of a nation’s capital. Here, flags fly above government offices, traffic is crawling, and shops overflow with merchandise to meet any budget.

Only, Ramallah isn’t a capital. It’s not even located in a nation.

Technically speaking, Ramallah is the administrative center of ancient land claimed by both Palestinians and Jews, and sits quite literally in the middle of one of the most complex conflicts in the world.

Ramallah Shop Owner: “Here we are rightful landowners who are under injustice.”

That tension, of an Arab, mostly Muslim population, facing an Israeli occupation slowing its movements with military blockades and controlling who enters and leaves, and hundreds of thousands of Jews, in the same region, who live, work, worship, and travel as they please.

It was the Six-Day War in 1967 that led to today’s controversial dynamic. Israel decisively faced down growing aggression by surrounding Arab countries, and, amid victory, began occupying or settling on captured lands, including the West Bank. It’s been a serious point of contention between Arabs and Jews ever since.

Today, there are more than 200 Israeli communities known as settlements, built in the belief these lands, once part of biblical Israel, should be officially returned to the Jewish people. 

The settlements, a flashpoint, with attacks from one side typically provoking retaliation from the other. That has led to Israelis in some places building over 100 security checkpoints — roadblocks monitored 24-7, forbidding Palestinians entry without permission.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh: Settlements under international law are a legitimate illegal.

We sat down with Palestinan Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh last summer, in Ramallah, where he pushed back against Israeli claims that these settlements are legitimate and actually improve life by providing access to healthcare and security.

Scott Thuman: Israelis may say, the settlements are bringing infrastructure to areas, solidifying security. They claim that’s the benefit of settlements.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh: This is totally unacceptable, because look, look at everything. There are more than 220 Jewish settlements. Israel is putting under control all our natural resources for the benefit of the settlements.

And few resources can inflame tensions here more than control of water. Palestinians claim Israel diverts more than 60% of West Bank water for their own use, forcing Palestinians to ration what’s left.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh: The settlements is a zero-sum game. There is no way that one can justify colonization, that the indigenous people are benefiting from somebody, is taking their homes, occupying their territory, confiscating their rights.

The tensions playing out before our cameras when, despite being in a Palestinian neighborhood, with a Palestinian escorting us, an Israeli soldier draws his rifle, refusing us entry.

Shortly after that, another tense confrontation with a security unit on foot patrol on what Palestinians consider self-governed land.

Scott Thuman: So, this is a prime example of what life is like here. One of our colleagues is Palestinian, so these Israeli officers came over, and they told us that my photographer and I — because we’re American — we can stay here. She, the Palestinian, had to leave, couldn’t stay parked on the side of the road. The car had to go too. And this is just kind of part of that daily conflict.

Throughout the years, as far back as President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s administration in the 1960s, U.S. presidents have supported Israel but opposed Israel creating Jewish settlements in the disputed territories, calling them obstacles to peace.

But President Trump reversed that long-standing position, supporting Israel’s territorial claims.

Now, the Biden administration, in tough terms, is back to criticizing the Israeli settlements as damaging to any chance of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price: We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm, and it damages the prospects for a two-state solution.

But Biden’s team also unwilling to give full-throated support to Palestinians, especially as long as they continue what’s called “pay for slay,” the controversial practice of the Palestinian Authority financially supporting — and paying cash bounties to — families of suicide bombers and terrorists who attack and kill Israelis.

Scott Thuman: Many people say that needs to stop before they can support Palestine.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh: Well, it’s unfair to say that really, because look, we are a responsible government. What is it that we do? We take care of the orphans that their fathers have been killed by the Israelis.

Scott Thuman: You don’t think that encourages violence?

Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh: No, not at all. Not at all.

Amir Ohana is a member of Israel’s parliament and foreign affairs committee.

Scott Thuman: Do you think that the situation continues to be exacerbated or incited by more settlements?

Amir Ohana: No. Not only the Settlements are not a barrier for peace, they are the one and only way to achieve peace by letting our neighbors understand that they are not going to terrorize us.

But before leaving the Middle East and this long-standing internal conflict, one more stop. A place Arabs and Israelis share optimism: Efrat, a settlement 30 minutes south of Jerusalem, population 11,000, where the mayor notes Jews and Arabs peacefully share the same city hall, stores, and streets.

Oded Revivi, Mayor of Efrat: The outcome is that the Palestinians are also enjoying it.

Oded Revivi, Efrat’s Jewish mayor, says the elimination of security checkpoints, economic cooperation with Palestinians, and even sharing religious holidays together creates an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Scott Thuman: Do you believe there should be more settlements like this one?

Oded Revivi: I think both sides have an interest that the relationship will work. When you talk about building a relationship, there are no shortcuts. We need to set the foundations of love and trust and understanding, and even knowing the bridges that will last way longer than fences.

Sharyl (on-camera): And as we speak, tensions have once again gone on the rise there.

Scott: Yeah, that’s right, Sharyl. Just this week, we saw Gaza militants fire into Israel. Israel saying its airstrikes, in retaliation, hit military targets inside of Gaza. So these deadly attacks that we’ve been seeing in recent weeks — clearly an escalation, a serious one, is under way. Now, critics point out that this is a troubling time because you’ve got the Israelis who are sidelining their peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority to focus elsewhere on economic alliances with several Arab nations.

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