Almost a tenth of Israel’s Jews live in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, outside their country’s recognized borders. The population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has grown four times faster than Israel’s itself since 1995. Settlers regard themselves as inhabiting land that is rightfully theirs. The International Court of Justice sees it differently, having ruled that Jewish settlements in what it calls occupied Palestinian territory are illegal. The Arab world considers them occupation of land that belongs in an independent Palestinian state. Israel’s government keeps expanding them.
Israel’s parliament took a bold step in February, voting to give government approval to unofficial settlements built on land privately owned by Palestinians. Israel’s Supreme Court forbid such expropriations in 1979. About 120 government-approved settlements and 100 unofficial ones are home to 380,000 Israelis amid 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank. An additional 200,000 Israelis live in 12 neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to make their future capital. Israel annexed east Jerusalem decades ago, in a move no other nation recognizes. About 20,000 settlers live on the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war. Donald Trump’s assumption of the U.S. presidency in 2017 was expected to reduce tension over settlements between Israel and the U.S., its most important ally. Breaking with decades of U.S. policy, the Trump administration has said it does not view existing settlements as an obstacle to peace. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that his government would erect the first new settlement in a quarter century, however, a Trump spokesman said fresh settlement construction “may not be helpful in achieving” peace. Israel faces censure of settlements from the European Union, its biggest trading partner. The European Commission in 2015 instructed members to label imports produced in settlements as such, giving a boost to advocates of a boycott.
Israeli civilians first moved into the West Bank after Israel took control of it in the 1967 war. Every Israeli government since then, whether hawkish, dovish or mixed, has supported Jewish settlements there. The reasons lie in history, politics and security concerns. Some Israelis consider settlements bulwarks against potential attacks of the kind that occurred in 1948, when Arab countries assaulted Israel after rejecting a UN plan partitioning the British-ruled Holy Land. That plan would have made the West Bank part of a new Arab state, alongside a Jewish one. Other settlers think modern-day Jews have a right to the West Bank because it was the heart of biblical Israel. Still others simply like the relatively inexpensive housing. Government subsidies, including favorable mortgages and discounts on purchases of property declared state land, amount to about $700 per settler per year. The presence of settlements makes everyday life difficult for Palestinians. Barriers, fences and buffer zones meant to secure settlers restrict the freedom, movement and commerce of Palestinians. Both populations are frequently attacked by militants from the other side. When Palestinians are accused, 95 percent of cases are prosecuted and Israeli military law applies. When Israelis are suspected, that figure drops to 8.5 percent, and Israeli civil law applies.
Palestinians and some Israelis argue that settlement expansion will prevent peace by blocking the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Israeli construction in and around east Jerusalem threatens to impede Palestinians’ free access between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank. And a peace agreement almost certainly would require Israel to take the painful step of removing tens of thousands of settlers. Other Israelis dispute that these are barriers to a peace agreement. The access issue, they argue, can be solved with tunnels and bridges. They note that however loudly Palestinian officials denounce settlements, in peace talks their representatives have agreed that in a final deal the border would be redrawn so that Israel would keep many of them, in exchange for territory mainly in the Negev desert. Most new construction is in these agreed-upon settlements. As for the others, when it has withdrawn from occupied territory in the past, Israel has proven willing and able to extract settlers: 4,300 from Sinai in 1982 and 8,500 from Gaza in 2005.
The Reference Shelf
- A report by the UN’s Human Rights Council on the impact of settlements on Palestinians.
- An article in Foreign Policy argues that settlements don’t obstruct creation of a Palestinian state.
- Filmmaker Shimon Dotan’s documentary “The Settlers.”
- Author Gershom Gorenberg’s book “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.”
- Historian Rashid Khalidi’s book “Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness.”
First published Dec. 9, 2014
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