(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, which sees the settlements as consistent with international law, keeps expanding them.
As the U.S., Israel’s most important ally, has softened its policy toward settlements under President Donald Trump, the country has taken bold steps to strengthen its claims to the West Bank. When Israel announced plans in early 2017 to erect the first new settlement in a quarter-century, the Trump administration affirmed that it does not view existing settlements as an obstacle to peace, a reversal of decades-old U.S. policy. It added that fresh construction “may not be helpful,” but that was a mild rebuke compared with those of previous administrations. Israel’s parliament subsequently passed a law that would extend government authorization to unofficial settlements built on land privately owned by Palestinians. Israel’s Supreme Court prohibited such expropriations in 1979, and it froze application of the new law pending a legal challenge to it. About 130 government-approved settlements and 100 unofficial ones are home to about 400,000 Israelis in the West Bank, where an estimated 2.9 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 no other nation recognized. Under Trump, the U.S. 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 percent of cases are prosecuted and Israeli military law applies. When Israelis are suspected, that figure drops to 8.5 percent, and Israeli civil law applies.
Palestinians and some Israelis argue that settlement expansion will prevent peace by blocking the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Israeli construction in and around east Jerusalem threatens to impede Palestinians’ free access between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank. And a future peace agreement could require Israel to take the painful step of removing tens of thousands of settlers. Other Israelis say the access issue can be solved with tunnels and bridges. They note that however loudly Palestinian officials denounce settlements, their representatives have agreed in peace talks that in a final deal the border would be redrawn so that Israel would keep many of them, in exchange for territory mainly in the Negev desert. Most new construction has been in these agreed-upon settlements. As for the others, when it has withdrawn from occupied territory in the past, Israel has proven willing and able to extract settlers: 4,300 from Sinai in 1982 and 8,500 from Gaza in 2005.
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.
First published Dec.
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