Again with the settlements?

With settlers in the headlines because of recent U.S. sanctions on four Israelis in Judea and Samaria who have been linked to violent attacks against Palestinians and talk about a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, one would think it was enough unwelcome news for the week. But now along comes U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and his criticism of Israel’s announced plan to add 3,000 homes to settlements in Judea and Samaria.

Saying that Israel’s expansion of settlements in the territories was “inconsistent with international law,” Blinken, in effect, reversed the position of the Trump administration. In November 2019, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that Israeli settlements were not “inconsistent with international law.”

Not only is the expansion illegal, according to Blinken, but in Washington’s judgment, “this only weakens, doesn’t strengthen Israel’s security,” he said. Thanks for that advice, Mr. Secretary, but perhaps the question of what steps strengthen the security of the Jewish state is something better left for Jerusalem’s leadership to decide.

When declaring the expansion of existing settlements and the possible creation of new communities in Judea and Samaria illegal, on just what is Blinken basing his decision? Previous critics of settlements and their expansion leaned heavily on the Oslo Accords to support their positions. And while the addition or expansion of Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria is often blamed for Oslo’s failure, the fact remains that there is nothing in those agreements that prohibits either construction within or the creation of new communities in Judea and Samaria.

Palestinian violence directed against Israelis in the territories as well as in Israel’s cities is what destroyed Oslo, not the construction of a home in Efrat, Itamar, Elazar or anywhere else. To imply otherwise creates a moral equivalence between murder and housing construction. One may disagree with construction in this or that territory. But to suggest that simply building a house—anywhere in areas under Israel’s control—is comparable to the taking of innocent human lives in terror attacks is just plain wrong.

Rather than sanctioning settlers and calling Israel’s housing plans “inconsistent with international law,” I would like Blinken to shift his focus and direct his attention to what the United States is doing and can do to secure the release of American and Israeli hostages who have been held in the dungeons of Gaza in unspeakable conditions for the past five months. Israel knows that it cannot rely on the United Nations or the International Red Cross to get information about the hostages, and depending on Qatar—a Hamas supporter—to play the honest broker is a decision for Israel’s political and security experts to make. However, the United States does have a significant role to play by putting direct pressure on Hamas leadership.

How so? The monetary sanctions previously announced against Hamas leadership are just one tool in the anti-terrorism tool kit. I’m suggesting that Washington hold them criminally responsible for the taking of Americans as hostages by issuing indictments and arrest warrants for Ismail Haniyeh and Mousa Abu Marzouk, living in luxury in Qatar; and Marwan Issa, Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, who are somewhere underground in Gaza.

U.S. law allows it, so why not use it?

If Blinken is serious about American support for Israel and its right to defend itself against atrocities such as those witnessed on Oct. 7, then delegitimizing settlements is not the road to travel.

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