Op-ed: Stop demolitions, build peace with J Street U

Michael Berkowitz | J Street U Exec Member

When I first came to college, I had never heard of Susya. You likely haven’t either.

Susya is a village of about 350 Palestinians living in the West Bank, specifically in the South Hebron Hills. On Feb. 1, Israel’s High Court ordered the demolition of seven structures in this village, which means over 40 of Susya’s residents are about to lose their homes. Here’s why I think you need to know about Susya: with your help, we at J Street U think we can help to stop the impending demolition.

Palestinian Susya has been under threat of demolition by the Israeli government for roughly 30 years. The demolition of Palestinian villages like Susya is part of a larger strategy by the Israeli far-right to decrease the Palestinian presence in areas that would be important for any two-state solution, and to increase illegal Israeli settlement construction in these areas. These demolitions and subsequent settler activity pose a significant threat to the possibility of a two-state solution. A viable, contiguous Palestinian state cannot be established if the West Bank is subsumed by Israeli settlements.

Israel’s far-right settler movement believes that by subverting the peace process through settlement expansion, they can create the circumstances for the eventual annexation of the West Bank. This strategy is sometimes referred to as the threat of “creeping annexation,” with the goal of creating one state, or “Greater Israel.” Absorbing more than 2 million Palestinians into the state of Israel would create a scenario in which Israel would have to choose between allowing 3 million Palestinians the right to vote, thereby ending the Jewish character of the State, or giving up any semblance of its democracy by ruling indefinitely over Palestinian non-citizens.

The human rights issues at play in Israel’s demolition policies are equally salient. In the past, the Israeli government has cut off water supplies, dismantled solar panels and demolished people’s homes in Susya and other villages like it. These actions in turn breed increased animosity on the part of Palestinians towards the state of Israel, further decreasing the chances for peace.

If you go past the Green Line, the de facto border between Israel proper and the West Bank, you can see the results of this policy up close. Years ago, I stayed in Gush Etzion, one of the largest settlement blocs in the West Bank. Walking around the settlement, I was astonished with how much the settlers have accomplished. In just a few decades, with government support, Gush Etzion has grown from a couple of shacks to one of the greatest centers for Jewish learning and tradition in the world. But all this comes at a steep price. Gush Etzion was established soon after the beginning of the occupation, and has expanded far beyond its original boundaries. Today, it is largely assumed by both the left and the right that Gush Etzion will one day be annexed by Israel. Any hope of returning this land to the Palestinians is long gone, undermined by years of settlement expansion.

Past administrations have opposed settlement expansion, understanding it as one of the greatest threats to the peace process and a two-state solution. Pressure from the American political community in the past has slowed the rate of settler activity, and increased the opposition within the Israeli government towards settlement expansion.

However, the Trump administration has wavered on this commitment, emboldening the Israeli right in their quest to finally kill the two-state solution and expand Jewish settlement in Palestinian territories. He has undermined America’s unconditional support for a two-state solution and appointed officials in both the State Department and the American Embassy in Israel who are sympathetic to the settler cause.

As part of the renewed efforts by the Israeli right to annex slices of the West Bank, with de facto support from the Trump administration, the village of Susya has again been targeted for partial demolition.

In the absence of American political leadership, it is up to all of us to stand up to the often extremist policies of Israel’s far-right. The American pro-Israel, anti-occupation community cannot stand idly by. We cannot allow the current government to squander prospects for peace, and tarnish Israel’s democracy forever. We need members of Congress—including our own Rep. William Lacy Clay—to speak out against demolitions.

Since 2016, we in J Street U and J Street have been resisting demolitions in every way we can. By calling American and Israeli political leaders, raising funds for villages under threat and holding events at universities and synagogues, we believe ordinary Americans, in concert with American policy makers, can make a difference. Specifically here at Wash U, we have engaged with local leaders in the St. Louis Jewish community and are now working to create a broader base of support on campus in order to clearly demonstrate American and Jewish opposition to demolitions. All of us can take a stand against this injustice.

If you’d like to get involved, then I encourage you to check out our next public event on Feb. 20 at 6 p.m. We will be collaborating with Washington University Habitat for Humanity and giving a presentation on how the demolitions of Palestinian communities are both a humanitarian crisis and an obstacle to the peace process. We hope you can make it! Check out the Facebook event here.

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