Settlements 101

What is a settlement?

"Settlement" is the term used to denote Israeli civilian communities built in territory conquered by Israel in the Six Day War (June 1967). This territory is comprised of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. These neighborhoods have been a major issue in the peace process since 1967 and remain highly controversial.

Settlements in the Sinai were evacuated and destroyed in 1979, following Israel's historic peace agreement with Egypt and the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.

Settlements in the Gaza Strip were evacuated and destroyed as part of Israel's unilateral "disengagement" from Gaza in 2005.

Therefore, today settlements only exist in the Golan Heights and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem).

Are settlements illegal?

Most international lawyers consider settlements to be violations of Article 49, paragraph 6 of the Geneva Convention of 1949, which declares it illegal for an occupying force to transplant civilian populations into occupied lands. Israel's High Court of Justice has refused to rule on the legality of settlements, while Israeli government attorneys have argued that the Geneva Convention does not apply to settlements. Moreover, while Israel has formally annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem and extended its sovereignty to these areas, these annexations are not recognized by the international community, including the United States.

Who built the settlements?

The Israeli government has directly and indirectly funded or subsidized the construction of settlements, spurring debate and controversy in the international community. In addition, settlements receive funding from outside sources, including non-profit organizations that fundraise for them in the United States.

Why do people move to settlements?

Some settlers move to the West Bank for quality-of life reasons. As a result of government investment and incentives, Israelis can enjoy a much higher quality of life in settlements than inside Israel, and at a much lower cost. Others are motivated by ideology [ideological settlers] and view these territories as land rightfully belonging to the Jewish people. Others - mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews - moved to the West Bank mainly because of the availability of cheap, segregated housing (wholly orthodox communities) there.

What are outposts?

Outposts are settlements built without official Israeli government sanction, typically after the mid-1990's, when the Israeli government undertook to stop approving new settlements. Unlike most settlements in the West Bank, outposts clearly violate Israeli law. However, some of the outposts have received funding from government agencies. At the request of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in 2005 Israeli-government-attorney Talia Sasson produced the Sasson Report on outposts. The report includes details on how the ministries of Defense and Housing and Construction spent money from state budgets to support outposts. Under the Roadmap Agreement, Israel is obligated to evacuate all outposts built since 2001, but so far only about a dozen outposts have actually been evacuated.

A brief history of settlements

Aftermath of the Six-Day War: Before the 1967 Six-Day War, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) was part of Jordan, the Golan Heights were part of Syria, and the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip were under Egyptian control. Israel conquered all of these territories during the Six Day War.

Settlement of the West Bank began shortly after the end of the Six-Day War. In late 1967, Israel's Ministerial Committee for Settlements began to plan an official settlement map. Shortly thereafter, Israel established the settlement of Kfar Etzion in an area south of Jerusalem - a site targeted because before 1948 a Jewish community had existed there. A year later, religious-nationalist activists launched a drive to settle areas of the West Bank heartland, including in the north (around Nablus) and south (in and around Hebron, which before 1948 also had a Jewish community and which is viewed by religious Jews as the cradle of Judaism). These settlements were justified by ideological reasons (settling historic Israel) and by the argument that they were necessary for Israel's defense (the need to create "strategic depth" to protect Israel's interior).

Around 30 settlements were established between 1967 and 1977, home at the time to approximately 5,000 settlers, primarily in the Jordan Valley. However, under Prime Minister Menachem Begin (1977-1983), a new pattern emerged: settlements were established in the West Bank heartland and between the central ridge of the West Bank and the Green Line, kicking off a trend of increasing construction rates. Dozens of such settlements were created during this period, along with settler-focused infrastructure, with the clear goal of ensuring that the West Bank would forever remain in Israeli hands.

Ideology and the Settlement movement: Ideological movements have long played a part in the growth of settlements. Gush Emunim, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, was one such movement. Levinger encouraged settlement construction on the grounds that the land had been given to the Jewish people by God.

Defense rationale for settlements: Since the beginning of the settlement movement, many Israeli officials defended the settlements not on ideological grounds, but on the grounds that they were vital to Israel's security. For example, in July 1967, almost immediately after the June 1967 War, then-Defense Minister Yigal Allon unveiled his plan to consolidate Israel's hold on what he believed to be crucial areas of the West Bank. The ""Allon Plan" called for Israel to retain the Jordan Valley and the eastern slopes of the mountain ridge running through the West Bank (an area sparsely inhabited by Palestinians), in order to protect against an Arab attack from the east. The plan also called for establishing Israeli settlements in these areas as a way of defining the land that would eventually be annexed to Israel. While the Allon Plan was never formally adopted by any Israeli government, it nonetheless became the framework for Labor Party policy vis-à-vis the West Bank during the 1970s and 1980s.

The Roadmap: In April 2003, the Quartet (the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia) proposed a Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, commonly referred to as "the Roadmap." Among other things, Phase I of this plan called for an end to Palestinian violence and terrorism, and in parallel, a complete settlement freeze (explicitly including so-called "natural growth") and the immediate dismantling of Israeli settlements constructed after March 2001. The Roadmap, which envisioned a peace agreement within a few years, remains a constantly-referenced document in peace efforts, although its sequence and timetable have been ignored.

Disengagement from Gaza: In 2005 Israel implemented a unilateral disengagement from Gaza, evacuating all 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip. In addition, Israel evacuated four small, isolated settlements in the northern West Bank. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief of staff has suggested that the plan was intended to divert attention from the Roadmap.

Current Controversies

The moratorium: In November 2009, under pressure from the Obama Administration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a partial settlement "moratorium." Under this moratorium, construction already underway before November 25, 2009 was permitted to continue, along with a number of other "exceptions." The moratorium, which was ostensibly intended to show Israeli good faith as the Obama Administration attempted to re-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, was limited to 10 months, expiring on September 25, 2010. It is not yet known whether it will be renewed. The moratorium has had little visible impact on the ground, due to the fact that there was a sudden increase in new construction starts just before November 25, 2009. In addition, there have been many documented violations of the moratorium by the settlers. In February Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai admitted that at least 29 settlements contain construction projects that violate the settlement freeze order.

The barrier: In 2002, Israel began construction of a barrier intended to separate Israel from the West Bank. The Israeli government planned and constructed the barrier under heavy public pressure from Israelis who wanted an end to the phenomenon of cross-border Palestinian suicide bombers. The barrier sparked - and continues to spark - controversy, largely because it does not follow the route of the Green Line. Instead, in many areas it dips deep into the West Bank, de facto annexing settlements, settlement blocs and adjoining land to Israel. The barrier has wide support within Israel, where it is seen as an important security measure that has succeeded in reducing terrorist attacks. Once completed, the barrier will extend from Beit Shean in the north to Arad in the south; the most controversial parts of the barrier are still under construction. The proposed route leaves fifty-five settlements and significant West Bank territory on the west side of the barrier (contiguous with Israel). Additionally, in many areas the barrier significantly inhibits Palestinian freedom of movement and access to schools, jobs and medical facilities, and drastically impedes normal patterns of life. The barrier - sometimes referred to as the wall (usually by Palestinians) or the fence (usually be Israelis) - is in some areas a high concrete wall and in other areas a fence with security roads and other set back areas.

East Jerusalem: Immediately after the 1967 War Israel annexed what had been the Jordanian municipality of East Jerusalem as well as much of the surrounding area, and combined this greater East Jerusalem with Israeli West Jerusalem to form the newly expanded municipality of Jerusalem. The international community, including the United States, does not recognize Israel's annexation of this part of the West Bank, nor do they officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital (embassies are located in Tel Aviv). East Jerusalem today consists of all areas within the Israeli-designated municipality of Jerusalem that are located east of the Green Line. This annexed area includes a number of Palestinian villages and two refugee camps, as well as a disused airstrip. Israel has invested huge sums in establishing large Jewish-Israeli neighborhoods - also called settlements - in East Jerusalem. As a result, while there were no Jews living in those areas in 1967, as of 2008 the annexed area was home to 253,395 Palestinians and 179,000 Jews; overall, as of 2008, the expanded municipality of Jerusalem was home to 253,395 Palestinians and 465,000 Jews (footnote with link to Peace Now Jerusalem map). East Jerusalem was not included in Netanyahu's 2009 settlement "moratorium." East Jerusalem and the adjacent West Bank "settlement blocs" of Givat Zeev (extending to the edges of the Palestinian city of Ramallah) and Maale Adumim (extending almost halfway to Jericho) are all on the west side of the Israel's barrier in what is sometimes referred to as the "Jerusalem envelope." This means that Palestinian East Jerusalem is separated and to an increasing degree sealed off from the rest of the West Bank.

Settlement blocs: "Settlement blocs" refer to areas in the West Bank where clusters of settlements have been established in relatively close proximity to one another, and which are home to the majority of settlers. In the current political context, the term "settlement bloc" has become a code name for those areas that according to the Israeli national "consensus" should become part of Israel under any future peace agreement. These "blocs" have no legal definition or standing, either under Israeli or international law, and Israel has always left the size and borders of the blocs undefined, allowing their informal borders to grow year after year, as construction has systematically thickened the blocs and expanded them to include settlements and land located at a greater distance from their centers. At present, the best indication of Israel's definition of the blocs is the route of the security barrier. The barrier defines three blocs around Jerusalem (the Ma'ale Adumim bloc, the Giv'at Ze'ev bloc, and the Etzion bloc), as well as the Modi'in Illit bloc further northwest of Jerusalem. In addition, "fingers" in the route of the barrier delineate the Ariel bloc and the Karnei Shomron bloc.

Settler violence: Violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians increased during the Al-Aqsa Intifada. From 2000 to 2004, 34 Palestinians were killed by Israeli civilians in supposed retaliation against attacks by Palestinian terrorist organizations. The violence continues today as extremist Israeli civilians, generally associated with the settlements, target both Palestinians and Israelis as part of the "price tag" strategy to deter any Israeli government actions against settlements and outposts.

The Golan Heights: Conquered by Israel from Syria in 1967, this mountainous territory is the focus of efforts to achieve Israeli-Syrian peace. Israel has annexed the territory, though the international community still considers it to be Syrian territory occupied by Israel.