Dear President Obama, When you meet with President Peres …

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, speaking to AIPAC at annual conference today.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, speaking to AIPAC at annual conference today.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, flew to the United States to give a speech at the 2009 AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) annual conference in Washington DC Monday and to meet with President Obama Tuesday at the White House.  YouTube already has a video of his speech.

Although George Mitchell, Special Envoy to the Middle East who was appointed by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met with Israeli officials, this will be the first meeting between President Obama and a high ranking official from the newly established Israeli government under Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu which is considered ‘right-wing’.

 AIUSA asked President Obama to raise the issues of increasing settlement expansion in the West Bank and the eviction of Palestinian families and demolition of homes in east Jerusalem.  Despite repeated U.S. statements condemning the demolitions and settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories, settlement expansion and demolitions continue.  Settlement building/expansion, evictions and demolitions in occupied territory are also illegal under international law.

Demolitions in east Jerusalem have increased dramatically in the last two years with wide swathes of land slated for demolitions.  Settlement expansion which has been in the works for some time is now being given the green light by newly elected government officials. 

Obama has also been asked to follow up on recent events in Gaza.  Despite statements by Sec’y Clinton that goods and humanitarian aid is getting into the Gaza Strip, other sources such as the U.N. and other monitors on the ground continue to report excessive restrictions which continue to keep out spare parts for medical equipment or equipment needed to rebuild, such as bulldozers.

We’ve also asked that Obama urge Israel to cooperate with the investigation being conducted by the team created by the United Nations Human Rights Council and under the leadership of Justice Richard Goldstone, a highly respected war crimes prosecutor.  Justice Goldstone has stated that he will be investigating the allegations of human rights abuses by all parties involved in the conflict.  The team is currently meeting in Geneva to organize and outline their investigation into war crimes committed during the Gaza crisis.  The government of Israel has publicly stated that they do not plan to cooperate with the team.

Even though the two leaders will be focused on the peace process, human rights are directly linked to any workable resolution.  Both parties must respect the basic human rights of each other and the United States must play a key role in getting all the  parties involved to recognize this basic tenet.

UPDATE May 6, 2009: Video covering comments made at AIPAC conference and responses.

Major settlement expansion announced in West Bank

Palestinian land was declared ‘state lands’ recently by Israel to expand the settlement of Efrat, near Bethlehem. This announcement was made just two weeks before Secretary of State is due to meet with newly elected government officials in Israel.

Settlements are illegal under international law and Amnesty International condemns their presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories based on their illegality and believes the existence of these settlements has led to mass human rights violations against the local Palestinian population.

Settlements aren’t only illegal under international law, but are at odds with American policy. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeatedly made trips to Israel, often having to repeatedly condemn settlement activity.

Settlements are an impediment to peace, but also a catalyst for human rights violations including (but not limited to) evictions and home demolitions. Often Palestinian lands are confiscated for direct construction or ‘security reasons’ created by settlement expansion and water confiscation and shortages are a major issue.

B’tselem video on water shortages due to settlement activity:

The expansion of Efrat specifically threatens the environs of Bethlehem such as the Hope Flowers School which is supported by peace groups and churches here in the US. Back in 2007, the BBC wrote a story already alluding to the expansion of Efrat saying,

“Officials say the order was issued because the cafeteria [at Hope Flowers School] was built without a permit, but staff believe it is to make way for the expansion of the adjacent Jewish settlement of Efrat.”

Special Envoy George Mitchell strongly condemned illegal Israeli settlements in his report in 2001 calling on Israel to freeze all settlement activity. President Obama made overtures to the Arab world and showed that he is willing to listen and show respect for their perspectives and human rights

But, will Sec’y Clinton, when she’s in Israel this March, go farther than parroting diplomatic sound bites? Will there be any constructive pressure put upon the parties to move forward, adhere to international law and prior peace agreements or will she continue to spout empty words like Sec’y Rice?

60 Minutes: Are Israelis and Palestinians giving up on two state solution?

In a moving piece on 60 Minutes last night, CBS correspondent Bob Simon interviewed both Israelis and Palestinians and asked if hope was fading for a two state solution.

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a former candidate for Palestinian president, said his optimism was waning. “While my heart still wants to believe that the two-state solution is possible, my brain keeps telling me the opposite because of what I see in terms of the building of settlements. So, these settlers are destroying the potential peace for both people that would have been created if we had a two-state solution,” he said.

A central contention concerns the building of settlements–many on land formerly held by Palestinians–which has fragmented and reduced Palestinian land owernship.  Daniella Weiss moved to the West Bank from Israel 33 years ago and now serves as the may of a large settlement.  Saying she was determined to “to hold strong to the soil of the Holy Land,” Weiss acknowledged that part of the reason for the settlements was in blocking a Palestinian state from emerging.  “I think that settlements prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the land of Israel.  This is the goal. And this is the reality,” she said.

For Barghouti, the settlements represent a way to control–and even humiliate–Palestinians. 60 Minutes reported:

Israel’s invasion of Gaza – all the death and destruction – convinces him that Israel does not want a two-state solution. “My heart is deeply broken, and I am very worried that what Israel has done has furthered us much further from the possibility of [a] two-state solution.”

Palestinians had hoped to establish their state on the West Bank, an area the size of Delaware. But Israelis have split it up with scores of settlements, and hundreds of miles of new highways that only settlers can use. Palestinians have to drive – or ride – on the older roads.

When they want to travel from one town to another, they have to submit to humiliating delays at checkpoints and roadblocks. There are more than 600 of them on the West Bank.

Asked why there are so many checkpoints, Dr. Barghouti said, “I think the main goal is to fragment the West Bank. Maybe a little bit of them can be justified because they say it’s for security. But I think the vast majority of them are basically to block the movement of people from one place to another.”

Here’s how they block Barghouti: he was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Jerusalem and worked in a hospital there for 14 years. Four years ago he moved to a town just 10 miles away, but now, because he no longer lives in Jerusalem, he can’t get back in – ever.

He says he can’t get a permit to go. “I asked for a permit to go to Jerusalem during the last year, the last years about 16 times. And 16 times they were rejected. Like most Palestinians, I don’t have a permit to go to the city I was born in, to the city I used to work in, to the city where my sister lives.

But even where Palestinians do have control over their homes and land, Israeli soldiers often take over these sites to conduct their operations. In the recent conflict in Gaza, Amnesty International criticized the Israeli government–and Hamas–for using human shields.  AI said that Israel often forced families to remain in their homes while Israeli soldiers used the these civilian sites as a sniper base. This may constitute a war crime because it deliberately puts civilians at risk. Simon exposes how this practice occurs even outside of the context of combat.  AI stated in a January 8, 2009 press release

“Our sources in Gaza report that Israeli soldiers have entered and taken up positions in a number of Palestinian homes, forcing families to stay in a ground floor room while they use the rest of their house as a military base and sniper position. This clearly increases the risk to the Palestinian families concerned and means they are effectively being used as human shields.”

60 Minutes echoes a similar story.

One house for example is the highest house on the highest hill overlooking the town of Nablus. 60 Minutes learned that Israeli soldiers often corral the four families who live there and take over the house to monitor movement down below.

Simon and the 60 Minutes team went to an apartment owned by a Mr. Nassif. That morning, Israeli soldiers had apparently entered the apartment, without notice, and remained there when Simon knocked on the door.

“We cannot speak with you, there are soldiers,” Nassif told Simon. “We are in prison here.”

Asked what was happening, Nassif says, “They are keeping us here and the soldiers are upstairs, we cannot move. We cannot speak with you.”

Nassif said he couldn’t leave the house and didn’t know how long he’d have to stay in place. Asked if they were paying him any money, he told Simon, “You are kidding?”

Abdul Nassif, a bank manager said he had to get to his bank to open the safe, but one of the soldiers wouldn’t let him go. He told 60 Minutes whenever the soldiers come they wake everybody up, and herd them into a kitchen for hours while soldiers sleep in their beds. They can’t leave or use the phone, or let 60 Minutes in.

UPDATE: If you wish to write to 60 Minutes to thank them for their story, you can email them at this address: 60m@cbsnews.com