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How much Palestinian land do Israeli settlements really eat up?

Banner during protest near Karmi Tzor Israeli settlement.
A banner seen during a protest with international activists near the illegal Israeli settlement of Karmi Tzor [file photo]

The Israeli government and its supporters routinely play down the significance of West Bank settlements as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. One recent example of this came from a Jewish Agency spokesperson, who tweeted: “Jewish communities in the West Bank take up under 2% of the land; that is, over 98% of the West Bank contains no Jewish residents at all.”

So is this true – and exactly how much of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) do Israel’s settlements take up?

1. What the 2 percent figure omits.

Those who cite the 2 percent figure rarely clarify that this refers purely to the built-up area of the settlements. As described in a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year, while “the built-up area of residential settlements covers 6,000 hectares”, there are also “approximately 20 Israeli-administered industrial zones in the West Bank covering about 1,365 hectares, and Israeli settlers oversee the cultivation of 9,300 hectares of agricultural land.”

2. The settlements’ local authorities.

Settlement areas in the West Bank, including local and regional councils marked in grey (UN OCHA, 2009)

Settlement areas in the West Bank, including local and regional councils marked in grey (UN OCHA, 2009)

The 2 percent figure also obscures a perhaps more significant reality. 23 Jewish local authorities operate in the West Bank: “three municipalities, fourteen local councils and six regional councils.” According to a 2009 United Nations report, 39 percent of the West Bank falls under these authorities’ jurisdiction. Israel has “consistently refused to allocate such land for Palestinian use.”

As an example, the report describes how “almost all of the [Jordan Valley and Dead Sea] area falls under the jurisdiction of two [settler] Regional Councils” – the “practical implication” of which “is that, in almost the entirety of the Jordan Valley, Palestinian construction is prohibited.”

Israeli NGO B’Tselem, meanwhile, describing how Palestinians are prevented from using land in ‘Area C’ (around 60 percent of the West Bank), states that settlements and their regional councils constitute 36.6 percent of the West Bank as a whole.

Furthermore, “the areas of jurisdiction of the Jewish local authorities, most of which extend far beyond the built-up area, are defined as ‘closed military zones’…[and] Palestinians are forbidden to enter these areas without authorization from the Israeli military commander.”

Beitar Illit settlement: built-up area versus municipal area (B’Tselem, 2010)

Beitar Illit settlement: built-up area versus municipal area (B’Tselem, 2010)

3. A little land goes a long way.

The amount of land taken up settlements – as well as their accompanying infrastructure – is not just a matter of square hectares; it is possible to colonise key natural resources, and control and fragment occupied territory, by settling a proportionally small amount of land.

As Neve Gordon has explained, when you look at the map, one can “appreciate how even a small percentage of confiscated land can be used to slice the West Bank into several parts.” For example, “while the area of jurisdiction of Ma’ale Adumim occupies just 0.8 percent of the West Bank, it nonetheless succeeds in slicing the West Bank into two parts that are almost completely separated.”

4. All settlements are illegal under international law.

There is, of course, a fundamental point missed by a debate over percentages. Every single one of the more than 200 Israeli settlements in the OPT – some ‘official’, others ‘unofficial’ – are illegal under international law. This is a view shared by, among others, the United Nations (including in both Security Council and General Assembly resolutions), and the International Court of Justice.

The Israeli government itself was given legal advice in 1967 that civilian colonies in the OPT would be a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention – but proceeded nonetheless. And every single Israeli prime minister since has maintained, consolidated, and expanded, these illegal settlements.

5. Settlements are inherently discriminatory.

Israel’s colonies are not just a violation of international law; they are at the heart of a regime of segregation and legalised inequality. In the words of Amnesty International, the settlement policy is “inherently discriminatory” and “perpetuates violations against Palestinians” such as “infringing their rights to adequate housing, water and livelihoods.”

This is a daily reality long attested to by Palestinians, as well as by Israeli groups, diplomats, and global human rights NGOs. Thus, regardless of their relative size, or even their future fate in a peace deal, Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, today, constitute a grave, systematic violation of international law and human rights. They are part of an apartheid system.

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  • Mike Abramov

    Here we go again. This is what will happen if and WHEN Israel gives up the West Bank. Israel will leave an infra-structure of gas,electricity, farming, roads and sanitation etc. Like Gaza, Israel moves out. The PA move in and with-in weeks there are squabbles. The PA versus Hamas. Shi’ite Hizbollah move in to support Hamas while the PA await the support of Sunni ISIS. A terrible civil war starts and many innocent Arabs die in the conflict. So, what will the left-wing pro-Palestine lobby say? “it’s the fault of the Jews/Israelis. If they had not taken the West Bank in 1967, this would never have happened. So, it is better that Israel remains in the West Bank because it keeps Fatah and Hamas apart.

    • Helen4Yemen

      ( Shi’ite Hizbollah move in to support Hamas while the PA await the support of Sunni ISIS.) You are trying to make it sectarian? But Hizbullah is Shia and Hamas Sunni.

      “Israel” is a foreign entity that does not belong on Arab land.

      The foreign entity will continue to leech as long as it can manage to leech.

      • Mike Abramov

        Of course it is sectarian but my apologies for the errors. Israel/Palestine is very similar to N. Ireland in the 1960’s to 1980’s.

      • James Mendelsohn

        Ah, Helen4Ajewfreemiddleeast. have you read any history yet?

  • John Pallyswine

    The dirty muu is a killer and vile animal. No good will ever come from the muu countries.