Chapter 23: The Settlements
- “Israeli settlements are illegal.”
- “Settlements are an obstacle to peace.”
- “The Geneva Convention prohibits the construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territories.”
- “The size of the Jewish population in the West Bank precludes any territorial compromise.”
- “At Camp David, Begin promised to halt the construction of settlements for five years.”
- “Israel must dismantle all the settlements or peace is impossible.”
- “If Israel annexes the settlement blocs, a Palestinian state will not be contiguous.”
“Israeli settlements are illegal.”
Jews have lived in Judea and Samaria—the West Bank—since ancient times. The only time Jews have been prohibited from living in the territories in recent decades was during Jordan’s rule from 1948 to 1967.
Numerous legal authorities dispute the charge that settlements are “illegal.” Stephen Schwebel, formerly President of the International Court of Justice, notes that a country acting in self-defense may seize and occupy territory when necessary to protect itself. Schwebel also observes that a state may require, as a condition for its withdrawal, security measures designed to ensure its citizens are not menaced again from that territory. 1
According to Eugene Rostow, a former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the Johnson Administration, Resolution 242 gives Israel a legal right to be in the West Bank. The resolution, Rostow noted, “Israel is entitled to administer the territories” it won in 1967 until ‘‘a just and lasting peace in the Middle East’’ is achieved. 2 Though critical of Israeli policy, the United States does not consider settlements illegal.
“Settlements are an obstacle to peace.”
Settlements have never been an obstacle to peace.
- From 1949–67, when Jews were forbidden to live on the West Bank, the Arabs refused to make peace with Israel.
- From 1967–77, the Labor Party established only a few strategic settlements in the territories, yet the Arabs were unwilling to negotiate peace with Israel.
- In 1977, months after a Likud government committed to greater settlement activity took power, Egyptian President Sadat went to Jerusalem and later signed a peace treaty with Israel. Incidentally, Israeli settlements existed in the Sinai and those were removed as part of the agreement with Egypt.
- One year later, Israel froze settlement building for three months, hoping the gesture would entice other Arabs to join the Camp David peace process, but none would.
- In 1994, Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel and settlements were not an issue; if anything, the number of Jews living in the territories was growing.
- Between June 1992 and June 1996, under Labor-led governments, the Jewish population in the territories grew by approximately 50 percent. This rapid growth did not prevent the Palestinians from signing the Oslo accords in September 1993 or the Oslo 2 agreement in September 1995.
- In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to dismantle dozens of settlements, but the Palestinians still would not agree to end the conflict.
- In August 2005, Israel evacuated all of the settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in Northern Samaria, but terror attacks continued.
- In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered to withdraw from approximately 94 percent of the West Bank, but the deal was rejected.
- In 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze settlement construction for 10 months and the Palestinians refused to engage in negotiations until the period was nearly over. After agreeing to talk, they walked out when Netanyahu refused to prolong the freeze.
Settlement activity may be a stimulus to peace because it forced the Palestinians and other Arabs to reconsider the view that time is on their side. References are frequently made in Arabic writings to how long it took to expel the Crusaders and how it might take a similar length of time to do the same to the Zionists. The growth in the Jewish population in the territories forced the Arabs to question this tenet. “The Palestinians now realize,” said Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, “that time is now on the side of Israel, which can build settlements and create facts, and that the only way out of this dilemma is face-to-face negotiations.” 3
Even though settlements are not an obstacle to peace, many Israelis still have concerns about the expansion of settlements. Some consider them provocative, others worry that the settlers are particularly vulnerable, and note they have been targets of repeated Palestinian terrorist attacks. To defend them, large numbers of soldiers are deployed who would otherwise be training and preparing for a possible future conflict with an Arab army. Some Israelis also object to the amount of money that goes to communities beyond the Green Line, and special subsidies that have been provided to make housing there more affordable. Still others feel the settlers are providing a first line of defense and developing land that rightfully belongs to Israel.
The disposition of settlements is a matter for the final status negotiations. The question of where the final border will be between Israel and a Palestinian entity will likely be influenced by the distribution of these Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria (the border with Gaza was unofficially defined following Israel’s withdrawal). Israel wants to incorporate as many settlers as possible within its borders while the Palestinians want to expel all Jews from the territory they control.
If Israel withdraws toward the 1949 armistice line unilaterally, or as part of a political settlement, many settlers will face one or more options: remain in the territories (the disengagement from Gaza suggests this may not be possible), expulsion from their homes, or voluntary resettlement in Israel (with financial compensation).
The impediment to peace is not the existence of Jewish communities in the disputed territories, it is the Palestinians’ unwillingness to accept a state next to Israel instead of one replacing Israel.
“The Geneva Convention prohibits the construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territories.”
The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the forcible transfer of people of one state to the territory of another state that it has occupied as a result of a war. The intention was to insure that local populations who came under occupation would not be forced to move. This is in no way relevant to the settlement issue. Jews are not being forced to go to the West Bank; on the contrary, they are voluntarily moving back to places where they, or their ancestors, once lived before being expelled by others.
In addition, those territories never legally belonged to either Jordan or Egypt, and certainly not to the Palestinians, who were never the sovereign authority in any part of Palestine. “The Jewish right of settlement in the area is equivalent in every way to the right of the local population to live there,” according to Professor Eugene Rostow, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. 4
As a matter of policy, moreover, Israel does not requisition private land for the establishment of settlements. Housing construction is allowed on private land only after determining that no private rights will be violated. The settlements also do not displace Arabs living in the territories. The media sometimes gives the impression that for every Jew who moves to the West Bank, several hundred Palestinians are forced to leave. The truth is that the vast majority of settlements have been built in uninhabited areas and even the handful established in or near Arab towns did not force any Palestinians to leave.
“The size of the Jewish population in the West Bank precludes any territorial compromise.”
Altogether, built-up settlement area is less than two percent of the disputed territories. An estimated 70 percent of the settlers live in what are in effect suburbs of major Israeli cities such as Jerusalem. These are areas that virtually the entire Jewish population believes Israel must retain to ensure its security, and presidents Clinton and Bush anticipated would remain under permanent Israeli sovereignty. 5
Strategic concerns have led both Labor and Likud governments to establish settlements. The objective is to secure a Jewish majority in key strategic regions of the West Bank, such as the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor, the scene of heavy fighting in several Arab-Israeli wars. Still, when Arab-Israeli peace talks began in late 1991, more than 80 percent of the West Bank contained no settlements or only sparsely populated ones. 6
Today, approximately 300,000 Jews live in 122 communities in the West Bank. The overwhelming majority of these settlements have fewer than 1,000 citizens, 40 percent have fewer than 500 and several have only a few dozen residents. Contrary to Palestinian-inspired hysteria about settlement expansion, the truth is only five settlements have been built since 1990. 7 Analysts have noted that 70–80 percent of the Jews could be brought within Israel’s borders with minor modifications of the “Green Line.”
Ironically, while Palestinians complain about settlements, an estimated 35,000 work in them and support a population of more than 200,000. 8
“At Camp David, Begin promised to halt the construction of settlements for five years.”
The five-year period agreed to at Camp David was the time allotted to Palestinian self-government in the territories. The Israeli moratorium on West Bank settlements agreed to by Prime Minister Menachem Begin was only for three months.
Israel’s position on the matter received support from an unexpected source: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who said: “We agreed to put a freeze on the establishment of settlements for the coming three months, the time necessary in our estimation for signing the peace treaty.” 9
The Palestinians rejected the Camp David Accords and therefore the provisions related to them were never implemented. Had they accepted the terms offered by Begin, it is very likely the self-governing authority would have developed long before now into an independent Palestinian state.
“If settlement-building is now concentrated in areas that the Palestinians themselves acknowledge will remain part of Israel in any future peace agreement, why the obsessive focus on settlements as an ‘obstacle to peace?’ ”
— Yossi Klein Halevi 10
“Israel must dismantle all the settlements or peace is impossible.”
When serious negotiations begin over the final status of the West Bank, battle lines will be drawn over which settlements should be incorporated into Israel, and which must be evacuated. In August 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acknowledged that “not all the settlements that are today in Judea and Samaria will remain Israeli” while leaked Palestinian negotiating documents indicate the Palestinians are prepared to accept that some settlements will be incorporated into Israel. 11
In Gaza, Israel’s intent was to withdraw completely, and no settlements were viewed as vital to Israel for economic, security, or demographic reasons. The situation in the West Bank is completely different because Jews have strong historic and religious connections to the area stretching back centuries. Moreover, the West Bank is an area with strategic significance because of its proximity to Israel’s heartland and the fact that roughly one-quarter of Israel’s water resources are located there.
The disengagement from Gaza involved only 21 settlements and approximately 8,500 Jews; more than 100 settlements with a population of roughly 300,000 are located in Judea and Samaria. Any new evacuation from the West Bank will involve another gut-wrenching decision that most settlers and their supporters will oppose with even greater ferocity than the Gaza disengagement. Most Israelis, however, favor withdrawing from all but the largest communities.
Over two-thirds of the Jews in the West Bank live in five settlement “blocs” that are all near the 1967 border. Most Israelis believe these blocs should become part of Israel when final borders are drawn. The table below lists the “consensus” settlements:
Approximate. Area (sq. miles)
|Ma’ale Adumim || |
|Modiin Illit || |
|Ariel || |
|Gush Etzion || |
|Givat Ze’ev || |
|Total || |
As the table shows, these are large communities with thousands of residents. Evacuating them would be the equivalent of dismantling major American cities such as Annapolis, Maryland, Olympia, Washington, or Carson City, Nevada.
Ma’ale Adumim is a suburb of Israel’s capital, barely three miles outside Jerusalem’s city limits, a ten-minute drive away. Ma’ale Adumim is not a recently constructed outpost on a hilltop; it is a 35-year-old community that is popular because it is clean, safe, and close to where many residents work. It is also the third-largest Jewish city in the territories, with a population of 34,324. Approximately 6,000 people live in surrounding settlements that are included in the Ma’ale bloc. Israel has long planned to fill in the empty gap between Jerusalem and this bedroom community (referred to as the E1 project). The corridor is approximately 3,250 acres and does not have any inhabitants, so no Palestinians would be displaced. According to the Clinton plan, Ma’ale was to be part of Israel.
The Gush Etzion Bloc consists of 18 communities with a population of nearly 55,000 just 10 minutes from Jerusalem. Jews lived in this area prior to 1948, but the Jordanian Legion destroyed the settlements and killed 240 women and children during Israel’s War of Independence. After Israel recaptured the area in 1967, descendants of those early settlers reestablished the community. The largest of the settlements is the city of Betar Illit with nearly 35,000 residents.
The Givat Ze’ev bloc includes five communities just northwest of Jerusalem. Givat Ze’ev, with a population of just under 11,000, is the largest.
Modiin Illit is a bloc with four communities. The city of Modiin Illit is the largest in all the disputed territories, with nearly 46,000 people situated just over the Green Line, about 23 miles northwest of Jerusalem and the same distance east of Tel Aviv.
Ariel is now the heart of the third most populous bloc of settlements. The city is located just 25 miles east of Tel Aviv and 31 miles north of Jerusalem. Ariel and the surrounding communities expand Israel’s narrow waist (which was just 9 miles wide prior to 1967) and ensure that Israel has a land route to the Jordan Valley in case Israel needs to fight a land war to the east. It is more controversial than the other consensus settlements because it is the furthest from the 1949 Armistice Line, extending approximately 12 miles into the West Bank. Nevertheless, Barak’s proposal at Camp David included Ariel among the settlement blocs to be annexed to Israel; the Clinton plan also envisioned incorporating Ariel within the new borders of Israel.
“Clearly, in the permanent agreement we will have to give up some of the Jewish settlements.”
— Prime Minister Ariel Sharon 12
Most peace plans, including Clinton’s, assumed that Israel would annex sufficient territory to incorporate 75–80% of the Jews currently living in the West Bank. Using the figures in the table above, however, it appears that Israel would fall short of that demographic goal even if these five blocs were annexed. The total population of these communities is approximately 202,000, which is roughly 66% of the estimated 304,000 Jews living in Judea and Samaria. The expectation, however, is that roughly one-third of the Jews living in other settlements will move into these blocs, which would bring the total close to 80%, but still require Israel to evacuate more than 60,000 people.
At Camp David, Israel insisted that 80 percent of the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria would be in settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty. President Clinton agreed and proposed that Israel annex 4–6 percent of the West Bank for three settlement blocs to accomplish this demographic objective and swap some territory within Israel in exchange.
Recognizing the demographics of the area, President Bush acknowledged the inevitability of some Israeli towns in the West Bank being annexed to Israel in his 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon. In his meeting a year later with Palestinian Authority President Abbas, however, he seemed to hedge his support by saying that any such decision would have to be mutually agreed to by Israelis and Palestinians. Nevertheless, the future border is likely to approximate the route of the security fence, given the Israeli prerequisite (with U.S. approval) of incorporating most settlers within Israel.
Ultimately, Israel may decide to unilaterally disengage from the West Bank and determine which settlements it will incorporate within the borders it delineates. Israel would prefer, however, to negotiate a peace treaty with the Palestinians that would specify which Jewish communities will remain intact within the mutually agreed border of Israel, and which will need to be evacuated. Israel will undoubtedly insist that some or all of the “consensus” blocs become part of Israel.
“If Israel annexes the settlement blocs, a Palestinian state will not be contiguous.”
As the map to the right indicates, it is possible to create a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank even if Israel incorporates the major settlement blocs. The total area of these communities is only about 1.5 percent of the West Bank. A kidney-shaped state linked to the Gaza Strip by a secure passage would be contiguous. Some argue that the E1 project linking Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem would cutoff east Jerusalem, but even that is not necessarily true as Israel has proposed constructing a four-lane underpass to guarantee free passage between the West Bank and the Arab sections of Jerusalem.
1 American Journal of International Law, (April, 1970), pp. 345–46.
2 New Republic, (October 21, 1991), p. 14.
3 Washington Post, (November 1, 1991).
4 Eugene Rostow, “Bricks and Stones: Settling for Leverage,” The New Republic, (April 23, 1990).
5 Haaretz, (September 13, 2001); President George W. Bush’s Letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, (April 14, 2004).
6 Jerusalem Post, (October 22, 1991).
7 Tovah Lazaroff, “Frontlines: Is settlement growth booming?” Jerusalem Post, (December 30, 2010).
8 Avi Issacharoff, “PA lightens ban on working in settlements to ease Palestinian unemployment,” Haaretz, (December 28, 2010).
9 Middle East News Agency, (September 20, 1978).
10 Los Angeles Times, (June 20, 2001).
11 Greg Myre, “Middle East: Sharon Sees More West Bank Pullouts,” New York Times, (August 30, 2005).
12 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Address to the Likud Central Committee, (January 5, 2004).