(Bloomberg) -- 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. A different view is held by the International Court of Justice, a branch of the United Nations, which Israel regards as biased against it. The court concluded in a 2004 opinion that Jewish settlements in what it calls occupied Palestinian territory are illegal. The Arab world considers the settlements occupation of land that belongs in an independent Palestinian state. Israel’s government has long argued that the settlements are consistent with international law, and now it plans to annex them, or as supporters prefer to say, apply Israeli sovereignty to them. That would remove them, as far as Israel is concerned, as a subject of negotiation with the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the annexation move after U.S. President Donald Trump effectively endorsed it in his proposed resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The U.S., Israel’s most important ally, had earlier said it would no longer consider settlements as inconsistent with international law. About 130 government-approved settlements and 100 unofficial ones are home to around 400,000 Israelis in the West Bank, where an estimated 2.6 million Palestinians live. An additional 200,000 Israelis reside in 12 neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to make their future capital. Israel annexed east Jerusalem decades ago, in a move not recognized outside of Israel. The U.S. under Trump became the only major power to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while adding that the city’s borders should be negotiated. About 20,000 settlers live on the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel continues to face censure for its settlements from the European Union, its biggest trading partner. The EU in 2015 instructed members to ensure imports produced in settlements are labeled as such, giving a boost to advocates of a boycott of such products.
Israeli civilians moved into the West Bank after Israel took control of it from Jordan 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.) Critics of Israeli settlements argue they are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its civilians into territories it occupies. Israel says the clause isn’t applicable to the West Bank because Jordan, which held the territory for 19 years before Israel, was never recognized as the sovereign power there, and the area was captured in a defensive war. Some settlers think modern-day Jews have a right to the West Bank because it was the heart of biblical Israel. 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% of cases are prosecuted and Israeli military law applies. When Israelis are suspected, that figure drops to 9%, and Israeli civil law applies.
Palestinians and some Israelis argue that Israel’s annexation of the settlements will prevent peace by blocking the establishment of a meaningful Palestinian state. Because the settlements are sprinkled throughout the West Bank, a future Palestinian state would lack territorial contiguity, which could impede the development of infrastructure and the movement of people and goods. Other Israelis say the access issue can be solved with tunnels and bridges. They argue that the Palestinians can be compensated for land annexed in the West Bank with other territory in Israel, mainly in the Negev desert, as Trump’s plan suggests.
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.”
- Israel’s Foreign Ministry argues that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are not illegal and that their status should be determined in peace negotiations.
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