Primer: Israeli settlements and why they’re so controversial

Israeli communities put down roots in the occupied West Bank. That blurs the boundaries of any future Palestinian state.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Some of the Israeli settlers say they move there for religious reasons or better life standards. Others say that they moved because they want to claim the West Bank as Israeli land.

What are settlements and why are they so controversial?

Settlements are Jewish communities established by Israel on lands occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

These lands include the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights.

The settlements are not called ‘residential areas’ — because Israel is widely considered to be an occupying force in the West Bank.

Why do they matter?

Settlements in the West Bank are a major impediment to in the area. This is because the West Bank is the land that some Palestinians, along with the international community, regard as the territory for a future Palestinian state.

The international community holds that the settlements amount to the transfer of Israel’s population to the occupied territories. That violates the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Under the treaty, the transfer of populations into occupied territories is prohibited.  

The UN is clear on this matter. It has called for an end to Israeli settlement policy.

“The UN condemns all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, including, inter alia, the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law and relevant resolutions,” said the body’s latest resolution last year.

Israel also established settlements in the Gaza Strip, seized from Egypt in the 1967 war, but it dismantled them when it withdrew from the territory in 2005. (AP)

What's the history?

After World War I, Britain took control of Palestine, or the territories that encircle Jerusalem, a city that is holy to all Abrahamic religions.

Some Jews believe that Jerusalem is their historical homeland and belongs to them.

In the first decades of the 20th century, thousands of European Jews moved there. As more Jews arrived in these territories, tensions between Arabs and Jews escalated.

In the 1930s, British rule limited Jewish immigration to Palestine. But Jews formed militias to fight against Arabs and British rule.

Many more European Jews moved to Palestine after the Holocaust.

In 1947, the United Nations approved a plan to split British Palestine into three. According to that plan, Jews would have a state called Israel, and Arabs would have a state called “Palestine.”

The plan also ordered the creation of a Special International Regime for the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

An Israeli Jewish settler, right, argues with a Palestinian man on a hill top next to the Jewish settlement of Givat Harsina near the Palestininian West Bank city of Hebron in 2010. There are an estimated 588,000 settlers in the West Bank. (AP)

Why did Arabs reject the plan?

The Jews accepted the UN plan and declared independence. But the plan granted the Jewish state about 60 percent of the total mass of land.

The Arabs rejected it on the grounds that it violated the rights of Palestinian Arabs, present in the majority of the country. The Arab League supported their decision.  

The latter declared war against Israel in 1948. Israel won the war, however, pushing well past the borders of the original UN plan and expelling thousands of local Arabs from their homes.  

During peace negotiations, a ceasefire line was created. Jordan seized control of the area which is called West Bank today, while Egypt took the Gaza Strip, another piece of land within the green line.

This fragile ceasefire remained until 1967, when Israel declared another war against the Arabs.

What happened in 1967?

At the end of the Six Days War, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan, Gaza and North Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.

This meant that Israel was occupying all of the Palestinian land with its holy sites and people.

Israelis began to set up homes in the West Bank. This is how Israeli settler presence started out in the West Bank.

The West Bank and East Jerusalem are still in Israeli hands, although they are nominally governed by the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah. (AP)

What are Areas A, B and C?

The West Bank is broken down into Areas A, B, and C, under the Oslo Accords, a series of peace agreements that were made in 1990s.

Area C refers to the area that is under Israeli control. It makes up approximately 60 percent of the West Bank. Most of the settlements are in this area.

Area B is under joint control between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It comprises approximately 20 percent of the West Bank.

Area A is under the full control of the Palestinian Authority. This area makes up the final 20 percent.

Where are the settlements?

There are 126 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, according to a report released last September by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics.

Most settlers live in three main “settlement blocs,” which are called Ariel in the north, Ma’ale Adumim near Jerusalem and Gush Etzion in the southern West Bank.

In addition, there are about 100 outposts that were built without the authorization from the Israeli government. These housing units are restricted or inaccessible to Palestinians.

What problems are Palestinians facing?

Palestinian communities are split apart due to the Israeli settlements. Their connection to the land has weakened.

They are excluded from certain Israeli-only roads and forced to go through a series of security checkpoints.

But the water shortage is a major concern. According to Amnesty International, since the Israeli settlements are given preferential treatment and access to water, Palestinian communities are in difficulty, especially during the summer months.

They often resort to storing water in their storage tanks. But these are mostly unsanitary and have often been targeted by Israeli soldiers.

“Water is life. Without water we cannot live; not us, not the animals, or the plants. Before we had some water, but after the army destroyed everything we have to bring water from far away; it’s very difficult and expensive. They make our life very difficult, to make us leave,” Fatima al Nawajah, a resident of Susya, told Amnesty International.

TRTWorld and agencies