For the past few decades, negotiations and attempts at the “peace process” have been occurring intermittently. The asymmetrical relationship that exists between Israel and Palestine, occupier and occupied, has allowed for numerous unilateral decisions to be made by Israel. Having the upper hand, Israel has benefited from stalling the peace process in many ways. Perhaps the most damaging blow to any attempt at negotiations is the proliferation of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, compromising the future of a viable Palestinian state. In just the past two decades, for example, the number of settlers has grown from 241,500 in 1992 to 490,000 in 2010, which includes east Jerusalem.
It is notable to look at when the settlement construction occurs, and when it is announced. It has often been the case that new construction or additional construction occurs during these times of negotiations or attempts at the “peace process”. During the 1990s, at the height of the Oslo Accords, which was a time of unprecedented hope for Palestinians especially, the number of settlers was growing at an incredible rate and compromising the process.
Judging from events that have happened in the past, it is obvious that settlements are a source of extreme frustration for Palestinians, and they create a volatile situation which is dangerous for both Israelis and Palestinians alike. Ultimately, the settlements damage the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state. This report will look at the growth of Jewish settlements throughout history, when and why they have occurred, and the dangers they present today.
Settlements Under International Law
The issue of settlements is important because they not only usurp private Palestinian land, but they steal vital resources from the Palestinians as well. Under international law, all settlements are illegal. However, Israel has thus far been successful at using the settlements as a bargaining tool in negotiations, rather than being held accountable for their illegality.
On November 22, 1967, UN Resolution 242 was unanimously approved. It came in response to the 1967 War when Israel gained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank, which includes east Jerusalem. The resolution is based on the idea of “Land for Peace” as it states:
(i)Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
(ii)Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.
Resolution 242 has been used as a basis for talks in many subsequent agreements, but has yet to be implemented.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention and The Hague Relations, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are a clear violation of international law. Article 49 of the Geneva Convention prohibits occupying powers from transferring citizens of their own state into occupied territory while The Hague Regulations prohibit an occupying power to make any changes in the land of an occupied territory unless they are for military purposes and the benefit of the local population.
Other resolutions pertaining to the illegality of settlements include UN Resolutions 446, 452, 465, 471 and 476. All claim Israeli settlements to have no legality and unanimously terming them all illegal under international law.
Seeing that Israel has ignored international law and their obligations under these resolutions, along with actively creating a volatile situation, it is important to understand the belief system and reasoning behind the creation and continuous proliferation of settlements.
Zionism and the Jewish Claim to the Land
The idea of settlements and settling the land is grounded in Zionism. Zionism holds the belief that the land of Israel must be redeemed and that it is the “natural and historic right” for the Jewish people to establish a homeland in the region that is now known as Israel and Palestine. The 22% of Palestine, to Zionists, is referred to by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria. This choice of titles is revealing in and of itself, especially in political contexts, in which the land that the Palestinians live and desire for their homeland is not even referred to as Palestine.
One of the precepts of Zionism is to have a Jewish majority in the region. Judging from historical events, such as the 1948 war and the subsequent barring of refugees from returning to their homes, it is argued that Zionism directly relied on a mass displacement of non-Jews. It also depended on preventing refugees to return to their homes of which the effects are still seen today, in violation of UN Resolution 194, as Palestinian refugees still reside in overpopulated and under resourced camps. In contrast, under the Israeli Law of Return, Jews from anywhere in the world can come to Israel and gain citizenship. When the UN decided in 1947 that the land was to be partitioned into two different countries, Israel and Palestine, the Jews accepted the offer, yet were not completely satisfied. David Ben-Gurion, the founder of Zionism stated that:
“The Jewish state now being offered to us is not the Zionist objective...But it can serve as a decisive stage along the path to greater Zionist implementation. It will consolidate in Palestine, within the shortest possible time, the real Jewish force, which will lead us to our historic goal.”
The historic goal that he spoke of was to settle all of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This goal is still being carried out as settlements are still actively being constructed and have been since the occupation of these territories in 1967.
The settlements that began in the years following the 1967 War presented a dilemma from the very beginning that would inevitably have far-reaching consequences. Even though Zionism is a driving force behind settling the land, not all settlers were uniform in their reasoning.
“Some [Jews] believed that settling territories on all the fronts would serve as a political card in negotiations with the Arab states, if and when this happened in some unknown future. Others saw the settlements as a way to tie the government’s hands in any such negotiations, and there were some who conceived of the settlements as an infrastructure for Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. The official government line, particularly for international purposes, was that Israel’s military presence in the territories was not an end in itself and that the territories were a deposit—an asset for political bargaining in peace negotiations”
Settlements After the 1967 War
After the 1967 War, the Labor governments (1967-1970) began to establish agricultural villages and kibbutzim in the Jordan Valley. This went along with the proposed Allon Plan which sought to annex 35-40% of the territories and create a security barrier with Jordan. The remaining land, according to the plan, would go to Jordan on which the Palestinians would be confined. However, the plan was rejected by Jordan, but the Israelis proceeded to establish their security barrier in the east regardless.
During the same years, shortly after 1967, settlements in areas such as Hebron sprung up because settlers infiltrated the area, sans government permission, and refused to leave. The government of Israel eventually coalesced to the settler demands, even though Hebron is the only city in the West Bank that Jewish settlers live in the heart of a majority Palestinian population. Hebron is now home to some of the worst settler violence.
Other settlements began under the guise of military bases or yeshivas (religious schools). The short-term living arrangements would eventually grow into huge settlements as years passed. Outposts were, and still are, set up on hilltops and often retroactively receive authorization from the government.
It was not until around 1977 that the mountaintop settlements began in full force. They were mainly promoted by a national-religious organization, Gush Emunim, which did not believe in making any territorial concessions with the Palestinians. Instead, it sought to create more and more settlements in and around Palestinian cities. Most of the religious and nationalist settlers reside in the mountaintop settlements.
In addition to the settlements on the eastern border as well as the mountaintop settlements, there is a third category which consists of the settlements that are closest to the Green Line. Many Israelis choose to live in these settlements because of lower prices and a higher quality of life. The residents who live in these settlements are often referred to as ‘economic settlers’.
Regardless of their reasons, all of the settlements take land from a future Palestinian state and ruin the possibility of contiguity.
All Israeli governments since the birth of the settlement industry have directly aided or turned a blind eye to the construction of settlements on Palestinian land. One of the most avid supporters of the settlers, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, encouraged ideological and religious settlers to ‘move, run and grab as many hilltops as you can to enlarge the Jewish settlements because everything we take now will stay ours…everything we don’t grab will go to them’. Rabbis and other influential figures echoed these calls and encouraged young settlers to help establish ‘facts on the ground’.
Whereas extreme ideological Jews that settle in the heart of the West Bank may wholeheartedly believe the land is theirs biblically, the government of Israel has used them and positioned them strategically as to break up Palestinian communities and keep watch over the Palestinians from their hilltop enclaves. Throughout the years, Israel has turned the landscape into “a system of domination and control, which is operated to a large degree by the civilian population”.
A group of Israeli architects who studied the plans behind the settlement enterprise have stated that even though the actual built-up areas of settlements in the West Bank is relatively small, the “settlements, strategically placed, managed to generate complete territorial control…according to the regional plans of politicians, suburban homes, industrial zones, infrastructure and roads designed and built with the self-proclaimed aim of bisecting, disturbing and squeezing out Palestinian communities”. Furthermore, “settlement forms and locations are manipulated for the bisection of a Palestinian traffic artery, for surrounding a village, for supervision of a major city or strategic crossroad.”
Currently, there are 121 settlements in the West Bank that are officially recognized by Israel, and by its Interior Ministry which refers to them as “communities”. There are around 100 settler outposts in addition to the “official” settlements. The outposts are not formally recognized, yet they are built with assistance from government ministries. Moreover, there are 12 settlements in east Jerusalem, some of which are in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods where families have been forcefully evicted from their homes.
Settlements that are set up without approval are often retroactively recognized, which gives the green light for others to do the same. Ironically, the army is sometimes forced to dismantle “illegal” outposts in the West Bank which gives the impression that the other settlements are somehow legal. However, evacuations rarely occur (not a single one in 2009), and on the rare occasion that they do, the settlers have been known to react violently to both soldiers or to Palestinians as part of their “price-tag” policy. This policy seeks to “exact a price” on Palestinians for every outpost dismantled which comes in the form of property destruction or violence toward Palestinians.
Recently, Israelis have been taking to the streets to protest the high cost of housing within Israel. However, Israelis who live in the settlements receive massive subsidies and benefits. This shows just how important the settlement industry is to the Israeli government in that they prioritize the settlers over regular Israeli civilians wanting to live in Tel Aviv, Haifa, or west Jerusalem, for example. Most of the settlements are not built because of demand-- they are built as state policy even if that means houses within settlements remain uninhabited. Israeli architects Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman argue that “the civilian occupation relies on the presence of civilian architecture to demonstrate a Jewish presence across the landscape…the question of whether there are a pair of eyes looking out of the windows of settlement homes becomes irrelevant as the effect of domination is achieved by the mere presence of these buildings”.
Settlements and the Peace Process
The Oslo Accords was the first bilateral agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. This marked a huge turning point in relations between the two sides, yet still one of profound asymmetry. Under the Declaration of Principles of the Oslo Accords it was stated that “The two sides view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, whose integrity will be preserved during the interim period”. It also included the clause “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations”.
Despite these clauses, settlements were not explicitly addressed, and the issue was left up to interpretation by the Israelis. Settlements were saved as a permanent status issue to be decided on at a later time. This was a failure of Oslo because as negotiations were in process to establish a Palestinian state, steps were simultaneously underway to make the Palestinian state smaller and smaller by the construction of settlements. Each new settlement and bypass road that was developed directly impacted Palestinian freedom of movement. The settlements, by their very nature and the infrastructure that holds them together, are antithetical to Palestinian freedom.
In 2003, under the US Administration’s Road Map, all settlement expansion was to stop and all outposts that were established after March 2001 were to be dismantled in line with the Mitchell Report that came about during the failed Camp David Summit of 2000. The Mitchell Report was published on April 30, 2001, stemming from an American fact-finding committee led by former US Senator George J. Mitchell. One of its main findings was that all settlement activity should be frozen. However, Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, rejected the Road Map requirements in practice, and settlement expansion continued.
In 2007, the Israelis and Palestinians took part in the Annapolis Conference where commitments were renewed under the Road Map. Ceasing settlement construction remained a key Israeli obligation stated as “[freezing] all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)” as well as “immediately [dismantling] settlement outposts erected since March 2001”.
However, settlement construction, growth, and planning did not stop. In the six months that followed the Annapolis Conference, tenders for construction which totaled 847 housing units were issued. Ironically, during the 12 months that lead up to Annapolis, only 138 housing units were tendered.
The United States on Israeli Settlements
Because the United States of America has consistently had a stake in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, acting as mediator, their position on the settlements should be understood. The position of the U.S. government regarding settlements has been fairly consistent throughout the years, at least in rhetoric. President Ronald Reagan reversed the former position of his predecessors regarding the illegality of settlements. He decided that settlements were not illegal, in contrast to international law, but he agreed that they were in fact, an obstacle to peace.
Since then, every president has stated in some form, that the settlements do nothing to help the peace process, and they damage any hopes that the Palestinians may have, increasing their chances of turning to other, possibly violent, alternatives. The position has consistently been that a halt of settlement construction could create the confidence needed for an agreement.
Before the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, the US Secretary of State at the time, James Baker, complained to Congress that, “Every time I have gone to Israel in connection with the peace process, on each of my four trips, I have been met with the announcement of new settlement activity. This does violate United States policy”.
U.S. President Barack Obama started a hard-line approach to Israel when he demanded a settlement freeze in 2010. Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complied in public, there were many loopholes around the agreement that allowed ‘natural growth’ of settlements and the continuation of settlements in east Jerusalem. During a visit to Israel during the same year, US Vice President Joe Biden was met with the announcement that Israel was to construct 16,000 new housing units in east Jerusalem.
The Obama administration’s attempt at renewing the settlement moratorium failed, and negotiations came to a close.
Judging from these instances, it can be assumed that Israel has chosen settlements over peace. The religious and nationalist claims, as well as an armed civilian presence that is used to control the Palestinians within the West Bank have been chosen over a lasting peace and an end to hostilities in the region.
The settlements impede Palestinian freedom of movement, steal resources, stifle Palestinian development and expansion, and put Palestinians at risk of violent settlers who act with impunity and receive protection from the Israeli army.
The settlements, their infrastructure, and the military presence that must protect and guard them, ruin the plausibility of a viable Palestinian state—and judging from the evidence, this is Israel’s purpose.
Meg Walsh is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at email@example.com.