How Israeli Settlements Work

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
Two men observe the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim  in the Palestinian West Bank with the Judean desert in the background. THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
Two men observe the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim in the Palestinian West Bank with the Judean desert in the background. THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Just a few miles to the east of Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Ma'ale Adumim started out as an encampment of two dozen Israeli families in 1975. Today, it's a city of 41,000 residents with a shopping mall, a library, a theater, 15 schools and an industrial park. When a New York Times reporter visited Ma'ale Adumim in early 2017, construction workers were busy at work, adding more homes to the clusters of white buildings in the hills [sources: Fisher, Jewish Virtual Library].

To supporters of the Israeli settlement movement, Ma'ale Adumim is a success story — a prosperous community built on what was once just empty hillside. But to Palestinians — including Bedouins in the Ma'ale Adumim area who've lost access to land where they once raised goats and sheep —such settlements are a threat to their dreams of someday having a Palestinian nation.


Ma'ale Adumim is just one of numerous settlements, communities that Israelis have established on land that Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, including the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. Most of the settlements are in the West Bank, an area that Israel controls but never has formally annexed.

Over the past 50 years, the population of Israeli settlers in areas outside its 1967 borders has grown dramatically. Today, there are nearly 400,000 settlers living in 131 settlements officially sanctioned by the Israeli government, plus another 97 unapproved outposts, according to Peace Now, an Israeli political group opposed to settlements that gathers data on them.

Add to that another 200,000 Israelis who live in East Jerusalem and about 20,000 in the Golan Heights — areas also seized in the 1967 war that Israel eventually annexed — and you've got roughly 600,000 Israelis or 10 percent of Israel's 6.3 million Jewish citizens living outside Israel's pre-war borders [sources: Myre and Kaplow, BBC News].

To the Israeli government and supporters of the movement, including many people in the U.S., the settlements represent Israelis returning to live in places that once were part of ancient Israel, and where Jews lived in the centuries that followed. But to the Palestinians and much of the rest of the world — including 14 nations belonging to the U.N. Security Council who voted in December 2016 to condemn the settlements — they violate international law and are a major obstacle to the long-elusive vision of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution.

In this article, we'll look at the history of the settlements and how they've added to the quandary of lasting Middle East peace.


What Is a Settlement?

Cranes hover at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Ramot, built in a suburb of mostly Arab East Jerusalem.
Cranes hover at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Ramot, built in a suburb of mostly Arab East Jerusalem. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

A settlement might sound like a hastily erected camp with a few temporary dwellings. And some actually are. In the early 2010s, British journalist Jake Wallis Simons visited a hilltop settlement (actually an outpost) in the Judean desert, where two dozen people lived, as he put it, "in a rickety assortment of caravans, shacks and tents," surviving off the fruit and vegetables that they grew.

But those squatters are the exception. Many of the communities that have sprung up over the past half century are developed to the point that they're more like suburbs — or in the case of Ma'ale Adumim, small cities, full of middle-class homes with lawns, parks, schools and businesses [source: Myre and Kaplow].


Settlers choose to live in these communities for a variety of motivations. Some believe that they're carrying out the will of God, who according to the Hebrew Bible, gave the land to the Jewish people. Others may want to benefit from economic subsidies that the Israeli government provides to settlers, including attractive mortgage terms and discounts on land purchases. According to an Israeli business publication, government aid of various sorts to the settlements amounted to $271 million in 2015 alone, not including money spent on roads and infrastructure projects [source: Magal].

One of the trickiest parts in the settlement issue is ownership of the land upon which settlements have been built. For a long time, the Israeli government maintained that most had been built on untitled property called "state land" it had taken control of after the 1967 war, or else on land whose ownership was unclear, thanks to Jordan's incomplete record-keeping [sources: Wilson, Harris].

However, a 2007 study by Peace Now, which sifted through government data, concluded that nearly a third of the land used by settlements was actually private land clearly owned by Palestinians. While Israeli authorities have shut down settlements that encroached on Palestinian-owned property, in February 2017 Israel's parliament passed a law that retroactively legalized numerous illegal settlements [source: Fisher].


How Did the Settlements Begin?

From the viewpoint of the Israeli government and supporters of the settlement movement, the story starts thousands of years ago, when the West Bank was part of ancient Israel. Here's the text from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs' website:

"Jewish settlement in the territory of ancient Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) is often presented as merely a modern phenomenon. In fact,Jewish presence in this territory has existed for thousands of years and was recognized as legitimate in the Mandate for Palestine adopted by the League of Nations in 1922, which provided for the establishment of a Jewish state in the Jewish people's ancient homeland.


"After recognizing 'the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine' and 'the grounds for reconstituting their national home,' the Mandate specifically stipulated in Article 6 as follows:

"'The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands not required for public use.'"

Jews continued to live in the West Bank under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and the British administration that controlled Palestine between 1923 and 1948, when the modern nation of Israel was established.

But with the armistice that ended the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948-49, the West Bank became part of Jordan. During its control of the West Bank, Jordan made the sale of land to Jews a capital offense. So, by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in which Israeli forces captured the West Bank, reportedly no Israeli citizens had lived there for nearly two decades [source: Myre and Kaplow].

After the 1967 war, the Israeli government didn't want to appear as if it was colonizing the Arab-majority West Bank [source: Grose]. But a group of would-be Israeli settlers decided to force the issue. In 1968, they drove from Jerusalem to the West Bank city of Hebron, where Jews had been driven away by Arab armies in 1929; checked into a hotel and didn't leave. As the group's leader, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, told an interviewer years later, the objective was to reclaim land that was part of biblical Israel: "Jews are entitled to have it," he said.

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol wasn't sure what to do about the squatters, since public opinion in Israel was divided. Eventually, the settlers struck a deal with their government, which provided $50 million to help them build the first settlement, Kiryat Arba, in the hills outside Hebron, complete with fences and watchtowers to protect residents. By 2016, it had grown to a community of 7,000 people [source: Englash].

Other settlers followed in droves, and their numbers steadily grew over the next 50 years. Though the Israeli government didn't start the settlement movement, over time it came to support it. The settlers became a political force that elected officials didn't want to challenge. On the few occasions when the government tried to shut down communities, the settlers wouldn't leave their new homes without a struggle. As a result, even moderate and liberal Israeli leaders allowed settlements to expand. Israeli conservatives, such as current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have gone further, and become active backers.


Settlements and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

To the current Israeli government and supporters in Israel and the U.S., the settlers are entitled to live in the West Bank for reasons we explained earlier. Since Jordan abandoned its claim to the West Bank back in 1988, the settlers argue that there's no nation with legal sovereignty over the land to prevent them from moving in [source: Kifner].

Opponents see the settlements as part of an intentional Israeli strategy to take over the West Bank permanently. To them, the settlements' presence throughout the area gives the Israeli military a justification for being there as well, and makes it impossible for the Palestinians to ever really have an independent nation. They see the settlements rising in the hills around Palestinian cities — and the security buffers of empty land around them —as evidence that their chance for independence is fading. Additionally, they see the hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks that the Israelis have created to thwart terror attacks on the settlements as restricting Palestinians' freedom of movement [source: BBC News].


In recent years, the conflict often has exploded into violence, including attacks on settlements by Palestinians, and settlers killing Palestinians and setting fire to their homes, cars and livestock.

The settlements have long been a major stumbling block in efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In the 1993 Oslo Accords, for example, the issue was such a thorny one that both sides agreed to put off dealing with it until later [source: BBC News].

Land swaps are one idea that's been discussed over the years for resolving the settlement debate. Israel would get to annex land near its borders where most of the settlers live, and in return would give up some of its pre-1967 territory to a Palestinian state [source: Makovsky]. But no one has been able to come up with a plan that both sides have seen as fair.

But the settlements are just one of numerous obstacles to forging a lasting peace agreement. The two sides also have to deal with thorny issues such as the status of Jerusalem, what happens to Palestinian refugees now living in other countries, and how to protect Israel's security and prevent terrorism. With that much on the table, and the long history of bad blood between the two sides, it's no surprise that a deal has been so difficult to achieve.


The Rest of the World's Involvement in the Settlements Issue

This shot of Jerusalem shows the Wailing Wall in the foreground, the holiest site in Judaism, with the gold Dome of the Rock in the background, the third most-sacred site in Islam.  
 Daniel Zelazo/Getty Images
This shot of Jerusalem shows the Wailing Wall in the foreground, the holiest site in Judaism, with the gold Dome of the Rock in the background, the third most-sacred site in Islam. Daniel Zelazo/Getty Images

Many countries view the settlements as illegal under the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring parts of its population to territories that it occupies [source: BBC News].

These countries have tried to exert pressure on Israel in various ways. In 2015, for example, the European Union began requiring Israel to label any exported products that were produced in the settlements — which would make it easy for consumers to boycott them [source: Reuters].


Religious leaders also have weighed in against the settlements. A dozen U.S., Canadian and European bishops from the Roman Catholic Church issued a statement in January 2017 denouncing what they called "de facto annexation of land" by Israel, and said Christians had a moral responsibility to oppose further construction.

Even though the U.S. is a longtime ally and provider of aid to Israel, the settlements question has put U.S. presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama in a difficult position. For decades, official U.S. policy was to disapprove of Israel's building of more settlements, while opposing any international effort to pressure Israel to stop.

But that holding pattern was shattered in 2016, when the U.N. Security Council voted 14-0 to condemn the Israeli settlements as a violation of international law, and called for Israel to stop building more of them. The U.S., which usually has used its veto power to block any anti-Israel resolutions, abstained and allowed it to pass[source: Williams]..

Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war and declared the entire city its capital. While Israelis tend to speak as if East Jerusalem and the West Bank are two different entities, Palestinians consider them as one body (the occupied West Bank) [source: Myre and Kaplow].

This is one reason why the U.S. and other countries are reluctant to establish embassies in Jerusalem — part of the city's ownership is in dispute. East Jerusalem is also home to Judaism's holiest site, the Wailing Wall (or Western Wall), as well as one of Islam's holiest sites, the Dome of the Rock, so both sides of the conflict have a special interest in it.

In 1995, Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But every president since then has signed a waiver that postpones the move because of the effect it might have on Middle East peace. President Donald J. Trump promised several times during his election campaign to move the embassy and in 2018 the U.S. embassy was moved to Jerusalem, a move that delighted Israel and angered Palestinians and others.


The Future of Israeli Settlements

A Palestinian protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and against President Donald Trump.
A Palestinian protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and against President Donald Trump. BBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

When Trump took office in January 2017, he picked a U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who regularly visited the West Bank settlement of Beit El during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, and had raised millions of dollars for educational facilities there [source: Kershner].

A few days after Trump's inauguration, the Israeli government announced plans to build 2,500 new housing units in West Bank settlements. "We are building, and will continue to build," Netanyahu said in the Jerusalem Post. Some conservative Israeli politicians even began talking openly about passing legislation to proclaim Ma'ale Adumim an official part of Israel —the first-ever annexation of a settlement.


The Israeli government's settlement push may have been too aggressive even for Trump. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, he urged Netanyahu to put the brakes on settlement development. "I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace," he said in the publication Israel Hayom.

Netanyahu did slow down a bit in response. In late March 2017, the Israeli government announced that "when possible," it would restrict construction of new settler housing in the West Bank to areas that were already developed or contiguous to developed areas. Even so, Israel still intended to go ahead with its plan to build a new settlement to house settler families who'd been forced to leave an illegal settlement the Israeli government had shut down [source: Deitch].

The future of the Israeli settlements is unclear. If a peace deal ever is struck, it seems likely that it would require the uprooting of at least some of them. But even if that happened, it might still be difficult to get some of the most committed settlers to leave. As one resident of the West Bank's Mitzpe Yericho settlement told Reuters in 2016: "It's part of Israel, according to the Bible. It's something from God."


Originally Published: May 4, 2017

Lots More Information

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