Israeli settlement

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One of the most contentious issues in the Arab-Israeli Conflict has been the Israeli policy of sponsoring, supporting, and/or tolerating the establishment of Jewish communities in areas that came under Israeli control as a result of the 1967 Six Day War.

The issue relates to the interpretation of international law and its applicability to the situation; the purpose and effects of the Israeli policy; the actions of various Palestinian groups that oppose the policy; and the larger context of the conflict.

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Terms commonly used to describe this matter are themselves controversial. These controversial terms include:

  • Settlement vs community- there is broad agreement that the term settlement implies that these are recently established places, and therein lies the controversy. Although many Israelis concede that the term "settlement" is apt for these reasons, others argue that these are re-established communities, built on Jewish towns and villages that were vacated by force as late as 1948 or much earlier. They also point out that these are highly dissimilar places (see below), and that using one term is misleading.
  • West Bank vs. Judea and Samaria - the term "West Bank" is by many considered a remnant from the time that Jordan controlled the area in question and implies that the west and east banks of Jordan are connected. The terms "Judea" and "Samaria" are historical terms that relate to the political geography of the Roman-era Jewish dominion in the area.
  • "Occupied" vs. "disputed" vs. "territories" - the legal status of the areas is a much debated question (see below) and drives the choice of qualifier for them.

Historical background

The armistice agreement following the 1967 Six Day War left Israel in control of a number of areas captured during hostilities.

  • From Jordan, Israel gained control of the entire west bank of the Jordan river, including parts of Jerusalem previously controlled by Jordan.
  • From Egypt, Israel gained control of the entire Sinai peninsula up to the Suez Canal, and the Gaza strip.
  • From Syria, Israel gained control of most of the Golan Heights.

In the absence of peace talks to determine the future of these and other disputed territories, Israel implemented different policies on their use.

  • The Golan Heights was annexed to Israel, and all its residents offered Israeli citizenship.
  • The municipal borders of Jerusalem were extended to include all of the old city as well as other areas. Residents within the new municipal borders were offered the choice between citizenship (if they met Israeli requirements for naturalization) and permanent residency if they wished to retain their Jordanian passports.
  • Sinai, Gaza and the remaining western bank were put under Israeli military administration, and residents were not offered citizenship, though they typically had de facto work permits within Israel.

In the absence of a final peace settlement, the continued Israeli administration of areas captured in 1967 is in itself subject to continuing international concern and criticism. However, it is the establishment of Israeli homes and communities in those areas that has often generated condemnation.

Israel evacuated her citizens from Sinai and demolished their homes when the area was ceded to Egypt pursuant to the Camp David Accords. Since the Golan Heights was originally part of the British Mandate in Palestine, the remaining areas in question largely cover the original British mandate that was left after the establishment of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

The Jewish population in the areas captured in 1967 live in a wide variety of centers:

  • Self-contained towns and small cities with a stable population in the tens of thousands, infrastructure, and all other features of permanence (e.g. Ariel, Ma'ale Adummim).
  • Jewish neighborhoods that coexist with Arab neighborhoods in the same city (e.g. Hebron and Schechem/Nablus).
  • Suburbs to other population centers, especially Jerusalem (e.g. Gilo).
  • Frontier villages.
  • Residential outposts, consisting of campers, trailers, and even tents.

Most of these are the result of new construction; but some are based on Jewish communities that were abandoned in 1948 or earlier. Newly constructed developments are largely on hilltops, at some distance from Arab villages, towns, and camps.


Except for areas that were annexed in Jerusalem and the Golan, Israeli citizens and others can only move to areas captured in 1967 with the authorization of the Israeli government. According to various statistics, the population distribution can be estimated:

Jewish population in controversial areas (needs data)

pre-1948 1966 1972 1983 1993 2004
West Bank, excluding Jerusalem/Judea and Samaria ? 0 800 22,800 111,600 231,800
Gaza ? 0 700* 900 4,800 8,000
Golan Heights ? 0 900 6,800 12,600 16,000
Parts of Jerusalem annexed in 1967 ? 0 - - - 177,000

(* including Sinai)

According to Israeli government statistics, just under 400,000 Israelis lived in territories captured during the 1967 war as of November 2000. This number is controversial, as it includes a large number of Israeli citizens who live in "East Jerusalem", which was once, along with most of western Jerusalem, proposed by the United Nations to be an international zone under UN administration (former compromise proposal, Resolution 181 (II) of 29 November 1947, which the Arab states rejected); however, if the boundaries of that peace plan were used, then the number of Israeli settlers would be far greater, including inhabitants of the Galilee, the southwest, and many other areas. Maps of West Bank settlements [1] (, [2] ( Since the Oslo Accords 1993 the settlers' number on the West Bank and Gaza (excluding East Jerusalem) has doubled, from 115,000 to 230,000.

1996 Map of Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights, Gaza Strip and West Bank
1996 Map of Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights, Gaza Strip and West Bank

Communities established on the sites of previous recent Jewish communities

Some of the 323 settlements were established on sites that had been inhabited by Jewish communities during the British Mandate of Palestine. In at least one case, Hebron, the post-1967 settlers were condemned by an association of its pre-1929 Jewish inhabitants.

partial listing only

  • Jerusalem various surrounding communities and neighborhoods, including
    • Kfar Shiloah - settled by Yemeni Jews in 1882, Jewish residents evacuated in 1938, settled again in 2004[3] (,4057,9150753%255E1702,00.html)
  • Gush Etzion communities - established between 1943-1947, destroyed 1948, reestablished beginning 1967
  • Hebron - Jewish presence since biblical times, evacuated 1929 (because of massacre), resettled in 1967
  • Kfar Darom - established in 1946, evacuated in 1948, resettled in 1970.

Legal status of territories

Although all areas in question were captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel claims that they fall into three different categories:

  • "East Jerusalem" - Jerusalem and its surroundings were envisioned as an international area under UN administration in the 1947 partition plan. In 1948, Jordan captured and annexed the eastern half of Jerusalem, while Israel captured and annexed the west. Following the war in 1967 Israel annexed the eastern part, together with several villages around it.
  • The Golan Heights, which were captured from Syria in 1967, have been similarly annexed by Israel.
  • The Gaza Strip and West Bank, a small subsection of the areas awarded by the UN to a prospective Arab state of Palestine, remained in Arab hands while the rest of that area was taken by Israel. The former was administered by Egypt while the latter was annexed by Jordan. Egypt supported Palestinian efforts against Israel, while Jordan regarded itself as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians.

The annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights have both been deemed illegal by the UN Security Council (resolutions 267 and 497 respectively), and not recognized by other states, having the effect that national embassies are still located in Tel Aviv (although the US has on various occasions promised to move theirs to Jerusalem).

Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt (returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian sovereignty), and Jordan (returning small sections to Jordanian sovereignty); there are currently no peace treaties governing Israel's borders related to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. Israel therefore asserts that the armistice lines (known as the Green Line) of 1949 have no other legal status.

Palestinians object to this view as the Israel-Jordan peace treaty was not to alter the status of any territories coming under Israeli control during the hostilities of 1967 (article 3(2) of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty [4] (

Motivations for settlements

Complicating this issue, a number of reasons are cited from both sides for the establishment of settlements.

  • Palestinians argue that the policy of settlements constitute an effort to pre-empt or even sabotage a peace treaty that includes Palestinian sovereignty, and that the settlements themselves are theft of land that belongs to Palestinians.
  • The UN, various European governments, a vocal Israeli minority, and many NGOs view settlements similarly, arguing that they violate international law by making life difficult for Palestinians in the areas.
  • Some religious Jews assert the historical Jewish connection to at least some of the areas in dispute, arguing that their claim is at least equal to that of the Palestinians.
  • Many Israelis argue that the settlements are of strategic and tactical importance, disrupting terrorist activities.

As it turns out, the settlers themselves have varying reasons for living where they do. While some live in the territories out of religious or political idealism, others are attracted to tax incentives, more space, etc.

Land grab accusations

Israel claims that the majority of the land currently taken by the new settlements was either vacant, belonging to the state (from which it was leased) or bought fairly from the Palestinians, arguing that there is nothing illegal about acquiring land in these ways. Further, Israel argues that these lands were conquered in a defensive war and are held legitimately as reparation.

Opponents dispute at least one of these bases, saying that vacant land had either belonged to Arabs who had fled or was communal land, that had belonged collectively to an entire village. That practice had formed under Ottoman rule, although the British and the Jordanians have unsuccessfully tried to stop it since the late 1920s.

B'Tselem (an Israeli NGO) claims that the Israeli government used the absence of modern legal documents for the communal land as an excuse to seize it. Altogether, around 42% of the area of the West Bank (total of about 2,400 km²) is controlled by Israelis (see Map (, MS Word format report (

International and legal background

The Fourth Geneva Convention forbids an "Occupying Power" to "transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies" (article 49(6)). This tractate is frequently cited by those who believe it establishes the illegality of the settlements.

Israel argues that West Bank and Gaza have never been part of a sovereign state since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire (apparently considering the annexation of the West Bank by Jordan as invalid), and do not therefore meet the definitions of the Geneva conventions article 2. Israel argues further that even if they did, the settlements are not intended to, nor have ever resulted in, the displacement of Palestinians from the area. In addition, the Geneva Conventions only apply in the absence of an operative peace agreement and between two powers accepting the Geneva Convention. Since the Oslo accords leave the issue of settlements to be negotiated later, Israel argues that there is no basis for declaring them illegal.

Israel has little international support for this view, and the application of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the territories has been determined by the International Court of Justice, which in an advisory opinion to the General Assembly, argued that according to article 2 of the Geneva Convention the convention applies if there exists an armed conflict between two contracting parties, regardless of the territories status in international law prior to the armed attack. It also argued that "no territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force shall be recognized as legal" according to customary international law (and defined by "Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations" (General Assembly Resolution 2625)). It should be noted that advisory opinions are not binding verdicts, and the ruling has been disputed by some international law scholars. [5]  (

The establishment and expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has also been described as "illegal" by the UN Security Council many times, for example in resolutions 446, 452, 465 and 471. Since resolutions 446 and 465 were not made under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, Israel argued that they held no binding force under international law, and chose not to heed them. Some scholars have lately argued that Security Council resolutions outside of Chapter VII can also be considered legally binding upon member states.[6] ( The Security Council itself takes great care to make the distinction in its resolutions.

Israel further points out that in the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians accepted the temporary presence of Israeli settlements pending further negotiation; therefore the violent attacks carried out by Palestinians against settlements are not only wrong because of settlers' being civilians (a claim others dispute), but also constitute a breach of the Oslo Accords. These attacks, however, are frequently carried by organizations such as Hamas which do not accept the Oslo accords.

Tensions, mistrust and accusations

The settlements have on several occasions been a source of tension between Israel and the U.S. In 1991 there was a clash between the Bush administration and Israel, where the U.S. delayed a subsidized loan in order to pressure Israel not to proceed with the establishment of settlements for instance in the Jerusalem-Bethlehem corridor. Jimmy Carter has said that the settlements consitute a "major obstacle to peace". The current Bush administration, while generally supportive of Israel, has said that settlements are "unhelpful" to the peace process. Generally, these U.S. efforts have at most temporarily delayed further expansion of established Israeli communities in the territories. It should also be noted that U.S. public opinion is divided. The strongest support for the Israeli position can be found among evangelical Christians. Public opinion outside the U.S. and Israel strongly opposes Israeli settlement and expansion of communities in the territories.

Although the Oslo accords did not include any obligation on Israel's part to stop building in the "settlements", Palestinians argue that Israel has undermined the Oslo accords, and the peace process more generally, by continuing to expand the settlements after the signing of the Accords. Palestinians and others regularly accuse Israel of attacking refugee camps and villages in an attempt to scare off Palestinians and claim the land as theirs. Israel justifies these attacks by saying that it only fights against terrorist organisations, and if there were no terrorists, there would be no military operations.

Israel previously also had settlements in the Sinai, but these were withdrawn as a result of the peace agreement with Egypt. Most proposals for achieving a final settlement of the Middle East conflict involve Israel dismantling a large number of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza strip.

Most Israeli and US proposals for final settlement have also involved Israel being allowed to retain long established communities in the territories near Israel and in "East Jerusalem" (the majority of the settler population is near the "Green Line"), with Israel annexing the land on which the communities are located. This would result in a transfer of roughly 5% of the West Bank to Israel, with the Palestinians being compensated by the transfer of a similar share of Israeli territory (i.e. territory behind the "Green Line") to the Palestinian state. Palestinians complain that this would legitimize what they see as an illegitimate land grab, and that the land offered in exchange is situated in the southern desert, whereas the areas that Israel seeks to retain are among the West Bank's most fertile areas, including major aquifers. Israel, however, sees the current "Green Line" as unacceptable from a security standpoint - Israel would have at some points no more than 17 kilometers from the border to the sea - which was an important motivation for the placing of these settlements. For more details about the issues at stake, see Proposals for a Palestinian state.

Dismantlement of Settlements

Given the dispute over the territories where the settlements were built, the issue of dismantling them has been considered. Arab parties to the conflict have demanded the dismantlement of the settlements as a condition for peace with Israel. As part of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, Israel was required to evacuate its settlers from the Sinai. The evacuation, which took place in 1982, was done forcefully in some instances, such as the evacuation of Yamit. The settlements were demolished, as it was feared that settlers may try to return to their homes after the evacuation.

During the peace process with the Palestinians, the issue of dismantling the West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements has been raised. Although never officially discussed in the Oslo Accords, many Israelis believed that a final status accord would require the dismantlement of at least some of these communities.

As part of the Disengagement Plan, Israel is planning to evacuate the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, including the dismantlement of all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and 4 in the West Bank. Most of these settlements have existed since the early 80's, some are over 30 years old, and with a total population of more than 10,000. There is significant opposition to the plan among parts of the Israeli public, and especially those living in the territories. American President George W. Bush has said that a permanent peace deal would have to reflect "demographic realities" in the West Bank regarding Israel's settlements [7] (

The Sasson Report

Talia Sasson delivering her report during a press conference at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2005.
Talia Sasson delivering her report during a press conference at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2005.

An official Israeli government report published on March 8, 2005 has revealed that Israeli state bodies have been secretly diverting millions of dollars to build West Bank settlements which were illegal under Israeli law. The report, commissioned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was headed by the former head of the State Prosecution Criminal Department Talia Sasson. The report details how officials in the ministries of defence and housing and the settlement division of the World Zionist Organization spent millions of dollars from state budgets to support the illegal outposts. Ms Sasson called it a "blatant violation of the law" and said "drastic steps" were needed to rectify the situation. It describes secret cooperation between various ministries and official institutions to consolidate "wildcat" outposts, which settlers began erecting more than a decade ago. Sasson added that the problem is ongoing, saying "the process of outpost expansion is profoundly under way."[8] (,stream=FTSynd,s01=2.html).

The report states:

  • The housing ministry supplied 400 mobile homes for outposts on private Palestinian land
  • The defence ministry approved the positioning of trailers to begin new outposts
  • The education ministry paid for nurseries and their teachers
  • The energy ministry connected outposts to the electricity grid
  • Roads to outposts were paid for with taxpayers' money

The report mentions 150 communities in the West Bank with incomplete or nonexistent permits, but Sasson cautions that this list is not exhaustive, due to the lack of cooperation of some ministries and government offices which, according to her, failed to hand over some important documents. She has recommended that the Housing Ministry be stripped of authority over construction of settlements in the West Bank, and that this power be transferred to the cabinet. Current housing minister Isaac Herzog said following the release of the report that every expense earmarked for the settlements will now need the approval of the ministry's director-general. Up until now, the heads of each department at the ministry have been able to sign off on expenses for various construction and infrastructure matters at the settlements.

The report is seen as potentially embarrassing to the Prime Minister because, when he was foreign minister under Binyamin Netanyahu in 1998, he publicly urged settlers to seize hilltops in order to break up the contiguity of Palestinian areas and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state (as reported by the BBC), saying: "Let everyone get a move on and take some hilltops! Whatever we take, will be ours, and whatever we don't take, will not be ours!" Settler leaders have rejected criticism of illegality and wrong-doing, protesting that they were participating in officially-sanctioned community planning initiatives. Settler leader Shaul Goldstein said Mr Sharon should be the one to face questioning over the report's findings, adding "It's obvious that the one who sent us in order to protect the roads and land is the prime minister so he should look in the mirror. Mr Sharon has to be questioned - not us." It remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister and other [former and current] government officials will face any legal repercussions for their alleged official involvement in the funding of illegal settlements, as Peace Now [9] ( and other groups have called for. According to the Haaretz newspasper, Herzog claimed that "the main responsibility for the building of illegal outposts in recent years falls with my predecessor, Effi Eitam and his director general." He also added that when he took up the position earlier this year, he ordered that no funds be transferred to the illegal outposts, as well as the establishment of a joint Defense Ministry and Prime Minister's Office team to coordinate the budgets for the settlements. Eitam lashed out in reaction to the report and the associated comments, saying that all illegal outposts he had approved during his time in office were approved in coordination with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had his full backing and were sometimes initiated by him.[10] ( Sasson has recommended criminal investigations against those suspected of involvement.[11] (

Deputy Defence Minister Zeev Boim told Israeli Army Radio that the outposts "must be removed", but that the government's plan to withdraw form Gaza had priority over any dismantling of illegal outposts in the West Bank. At a cabinet meeting on March 13, the government restated it's commitment to visiting UN head Kofi Annan to remove illegal outposts, but did not give a timetable. The Roadmap peace plan calls for removal of only those outposts erected since Sharon came to office. The report, however, states many outposts installed before that time are illegal under Israeli law. [12] ( Palestinian officals reacted angrily to the report. "It is time for the international community to say 'enough' to Israel and work with the same determination as on other matters," said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei. A US embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv also repeated Washington's longstanding call for Israel to remove the outposts.

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