(Updated September 30, 2010)
Israel sought peace with its Arab neighbors for two decades before the first Jewish community was established in the West Bank and yet no Arab leader was willing to end the conflict.
Jews should have a right to live anywhere. If someone said that Jews would not be permitted to live in your hometown, you would say that was anti-Semitism, discrimination and bigotry, yet the Palestinians are allowed to go on TV day after day and say that Jews have no right to live in the West Bank. That is overt anti-Semitism, discrimination and bigotry.
Jews have been living in Judea and Samaria, the area commonly called the West Bank, for centuries, far longer than Palestinians have lived in the area. The only time Jews have been prohibited from living in the territories in recent decades was during Jordan's rule from 1948 to 1967.
The right of Jews to live in the West Bank is clear. The issue of whether they should live there is entirely separate. Israelis debate this among themselves.
The question of the future status of settlements is the subject of final status negotiations with the Palestinians. The fact that Israel agreed to discuss the matter illustrates a willingness to compromise on this issue.
Neither the Declaration of Principles of September 13, 1993, nor the Interim Agreement contain any provisions prohibiting or restricting the establishment or expansion of Jewish communities in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
Some people argue that settlements are an "obstacle to peace." Consider these facts:
At the end of negotiations, Israel wants to incorporate as many settlements as possible within its borders while the Palestinians want to expel all Jews from the territory they control.
An estimated 80 percent of the settlers live in what are in effect suburbs of major Israeli cities such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Virtually the entire Jewish population believes Israel must retain these areas to ensure its security, and that they could be brought within Israel's borders with minor modifications of the 1967 border.
Of the 122 officially recognized West Bank settlements, with an estimated population of 303,900 in 2010, more than 60 percent of the Jews live in just five settlement blocs (Ma’ale Adumim, Modiin Ilit, Ariel, Gush Etzion, Givat Ze’ev) near the 1967 border. The Arab city of Nablus alone is larger than those six Jewish cities put together. It is inconceivable that Israel would evacuate large cities such as Ma’ale Adumim, with a population of more than 35,000, even after a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Even Yasser Arafat grudgingly accepted at Camp David the idea that the large settelement blocs would be part of Israel.
Strategic concerns have led both Labor and Likud governments to establish settlements. The objective is to secure a Jewish majority in key strategic regions of the West Bank, such as the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor, the scene of heavy fighting in several Arab-Israeli wars.
Settlements do not violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the forcible transfer of people of one state to the territory of another state that it has occupied as a result of a war. The intention was to ensure that local populations who came under occupation would not be forced to move. Jews are not being forced to go to the West Bank and Gaza Strip; on the contrary, they are voluntarily moving back to places where they, or their ancestors, once lived before being expelled by others. In addition, those territories never legally belonged to either Jordan or Egypt, and certainly not to the Palestinians, who were never the sovereign authority in any part of the land.
After several years of bloodshed, terror and stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided that Israel should act unilaterally to improve its security situation and reduce bloodshed by completely withdrawing Israeli troops and settlers in the Gaza Strip. This disengagement plan involved the dismantling of all settlements in the area, as well as four settlements in northen Samaria. Between August 16 and August 30, 2005, Israel safely evacuated more than 8,500 Israeli settlers and, on September 11, 2005, Israeli soldiers left Gaza, ending Israel's 38-year presence in the area.