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Explained: Israeli Settlements

Israeli settlements are always in the news – but what exactly are they, and what is their significance?

September 25, 2016 at 2:21 pm

Soon after Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip in June 1967, Israeli authorities began to establish civilian colonies – settlements – in the newly-occupied territory. Initially small in number, the settlements steadily grew, spreading across the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Today, around half a century on, there are well over 200 settlements, not including those removed from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Some settlements are major cities, while others are small outposts – all together, the settler population is now more than 600,000.

The built-up area of the settlements is 2 per cent of the West Bank, in addition to agricultural and industrial areas almost double that figure. A small amount of land can go a long way – Ma’ale Adumim, for example, east of Jerusalem, occupies 0.8 per cent of the West Bank, but serves to slice the West Bank into two parts. Furthermore, the settlements’ local authorities constitute around 37 per cent of the West Bank – areas off limits to Palestinian development.

Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, as a grave violation of the Geneva Convention. The illegality of the settlements is a consensus position, supported by the United Nations – in both Security Council and General Assembly resolutions – as well as by the International Court of Justice and Red Cross. Interestingly, although Israel now disputes this position, in 1967, an Israeli Foreign Ministry legal advisor wrote a secret memo acknowledging that to establish civilian colonies in the OPT would indeed contravene international law.

Settlements have been backed by every single Israeli government since 1967, including those often seen in the West as more ‘moderate’. The Labor party, for example, birthed settlements in the Jordan Valley, while in the first three months of Ehud Barak’s premiership in 1999, the government authorized new settlement construction at a pace exceeding that of the previous Likud administration. Even Yitzhak Rabin, speaking a month before his assassination, affirmed Israel would forever hold on to key settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The current Israeli government, meanwhile, is a firm supporter of the settlement enterprise, with the cabinet including ministers who back Israel’s formal annexation of some, or all, of the West Bank.

The settlements have a severe impact on Palestinians, whether in terms of displacement, dividing and fragmenting the land, or rendering crucial natural resources and land off-limits. Settlers also routinely commit violence against Palestinian property and people, with impunity. According to Amnesty International, Israel’s settlement policy is “inherently discriminatory,”, “infringing their rights to adequate housing, water and livelihoods.” Human Rights Watch have described settlements as “part and parcel of Israeli policies that dispossess, discriminate against, and abuse the human rights of Palestinians.” A few years ago, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination declared that Israeli policies in the West Bank – with the settlements front and centre – violate the prohibition of segregation and apartheid.