I arrived at the Tel Aviv airport and after clearing customs rode the 35 miles to Jerusalem, where I would attend an international peace conference convened by the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Everywhere I looked were enormous Israeli settlements, always on the highest ground, with the most modern, first-world living conditions anywhere, towering over the much-poorer Palestinian villages down in the valleys.
I saw on this trip how Israeli settlements loom over the West Bank and Gaza-and likewise loom over the chances for peace in the Middle East. They are the "facts on the ground" that shape virtually everything about Middle East politics today. Long before he became prime minister, Ariel Sharon controlled the future as the chief architect of the settlement policy. Settlements are aggressive forays into Palestinian territory by people who believe that God has given them all the land. Each one makes lasting peace that much more difficult. It's obvious now that this was the intent of the policy from the beginning.
Many of the settlers are American Jewish immigrants to Israel. Picture an SUV pulling up alongside a Palestinian family whose roots go back 10 generations. An American Jew from New York City, here only two weeks, screams at the Palestinian family: "Get off this land! God gave it to us!" With the settlements policy, that's now happening. Israeli soldiers are in the West Bank and Gaza not to keep law and order, not to protect Palestinians from violence or crime-but only to protect the settlements and the settlers. Control the roads, control movement, control the daily life of the entire Palestinian population-that's the settlements policy.