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Facts About Jewish Settlements in the West Bank

by Mitchell G. Bard

The word “settlements” usually refers to the towns and villages that Jews established in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the Gaza Strip (before the disengagement) since Israel captured the area in the 1967 Six-Day War. In some cases, the settlements are in the same area where flourishing Jewish communities have lived for thousands of years.

History of the Settlement Movement
Right vs. Wisdom

Settlement Advocates in the Government
Peace Agreements

History of the Settlement Movement

Following Israel’s resounding victory over the Arab armies in the Six-Day War, strategic concerns led both of Israel’s major political parties - the Labor and Likud - to support and establish settlements at various times. The first settlements were built by Labor governments from 1968 to 1977, with the explicit objective to secure a Jewish majority in key strategic regions of the West Bank - such as the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor - that was the scene of heavy fighting in several of the Arab-Israeli wars. In 1968, only five sparsely populated settlements existed beyond the Green Line.

The second wave of settlement construction began with the 1968 occupation of the Park Hotel in Hebron, a city with a long, rich Jewish history dating back to biblical times that had only been interrupted by a massacre of Jewish residents by Arabs in 1929. During Passover 1968, Rabbi Moshe Levinger and his wife, Miriam, rented a hotel for ten days in the center of Hebron and invited 30 families to stay with them. In 1971, the government relocated them to Kiryat Arba, a former military base on the edge of the city.

Those who came to Hebron in 1968 were the first of the ideological settlers who believed that Israel’s victory the prior year was an act of God which indicated divine providence that the historic Land of Israel should be restored to the Jewish people. In 1972, followers of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and his Gush Emunim movement established the settlement of Kiryat Arba just outside Hebron. Very few such religious/ideological settlements were established until Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister of Israel in 1977. Begin’s government, as well as subsequent Likud-led governments, provided financial incentives for Jews to move to parts of Judea and Samaria that did not necessarily have any strategic value. Their purpose was to solidify Israel’s hold on territory that was part of biblical and historical Israel and preempt the creation of a Palestinian state. Just after the 1977 election, 1,900 Jews were living in 38 settlements.

A third group of Jews, who are today considered “settlers,” moved to the West Bank primarily for economic reasons; that is, the government provided financial incentives to live there, and the towns were close to their jobs. In recent years, many of these Jews have come from more religious communities because of housing shortages in places such as Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. An estimated 118,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews now live in settlements such as Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit.

According to Professor Sara Hirschhorn, Americans comprise about 15% of the settlement population. Americans have founded several settlements, including Efrat and Tekoa. Originally, Americans who settled in the West Bank were liberal Jews who thought they were trailblazing pioneers like the Jews who came to Palestine in the early 20th century. Later, Americans moving to the area were predominantly Orthodox Jews. One of those immigrants, Baruch Goldstein, a doctor originally from Brooklyn who moved to Kiryat Arba, murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs on February 1994.


Though the media and Israel’s detractors have falsely suggested that Israel has been building settlements for years when not a single new settlement was approved by the government for 25 years until March 30, 2017. On that date, the Israeli Security Cabinet gave their unanimous approval to begin the construction of a new settlement near Shiloh. The decision was decades in the making, finally prompted by an Israeli Supreme Court decision that forced the government to evacuate the settlement of Amona, which was illegally built on private Palestinian land. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the Jewish residents a new town would be built for them. Under the agreement, 222 acres of land near Eli were declared state land, and 2,000 new housing units were approved for construction in the new settlement area.  Construction on the new settlement, to be called Amichai, began on July 12, 1017.

The estimate for the Jewish population in 129 West Bank settlements at the beginning of  January 2024 was 517,407, roughly 5% of Israel’s total population. This figure excludes 340,000 residents of the Old City and 22 surrounding communities that the international community considers part of the West Bank. Critics suggest these figures imply territorial compromise with the Palestinians is impossible. This may now be true as the number and distribution of the Jewish population is such that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to remove the number of settlers in the area genuinely envisioned (before the Trump plan) for a Palestinian state.

The overall area in dispute is very small. According to one organization critical of settlements, the built-up areas constitute only 1.7% of the West Bank. That is less than 40 square miles. Even if you add the unbuilt areas falling within the municipal boundaries of the settlements, the total area is only 152 square miles.


Mevo’ot Yericho

Outposts are settlements typically constructed by a handful of people without government authorization. In 2003, President George W. Bush asked Israel to remove illegal outposts as part of the road map for peace. Israel subsequently removed some outposts; however, in February 2017, the Knesset passed the Regularization Law, which legalized outposts, including those built on private Palestinian land (after providing compensation to the owners).

On September 15, 2019, the Israeli government legalized the outpost of Mevo’ot Yericho in the Jordan Valley. The attorney general said a transitional government could not do this so it will not become official until a government coalition is formed. This would be the sixth official settlement since the Oslo Accords, following Havat Gilad (2018), Amichai (2017), Bruchin (2012), Sansana (2012), and Rechelim (2012).

On June 27, 2024, Israel legalized five towns – Avitar, Sde Ephraim, Givat Assaf, Hatz, and Adorim. 


Another charge is that settlements are “illegal.” 

On November 18, 2019, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo expressed the Trump administration’s position that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.”

The idea that settlements are illegal derives primarily from UN resolutions and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is an arm of the UN. The UN does not make legal determinations, only political ones. The ICJ “does not have jurisdiction over all disputes between UN member-states,” according to the Congressional Research Service. In fact, “with the exception of ‘advisory opinions,’ which are non-binding, the ICJ may only resolve legal disputes between nations that voluntarily agreed to its jurisdiction.”

Israel does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction on the settlement issue. Like other democracies, Israel has an independent judiciary and, as Pompeo noted, its Supreme Court has “confirmed the legality of certain settlement activities and has concluded that others cannot be legally sustained.”

The ICJ opinion that the settlements violate international law is disputed by legal scholars. Stephen Schwebel, formerly president of the ICJ, notes that a country acting in self-defense may seize and occupy territory when necessary to protect itself. Schwebel also observes that a state may require, as a condition for its withdrawal, security measures designed to ensure its citizens are not menaced again from that territory.

The ICJ opinion was largely based on a fallacious interpretation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which says an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

The ICJ presupposes that Israel is now occupying the land of a sovereign country; however, as Dore Gold notes, “there was no recognized sovereign over the West Bank prior to Israel’s entry into the area.” Jordan had previously occupied the area.

A country cannot occupy territory to which it has sovereign title; hence, the correct term for the area is “disputed territory,” which does not confer greater rights to either Israel or the Palestinians. The Palestinians never had sovereignty in the West Bank, whereas the Jews did for hundreds of years; therefore, “Israel has the strongest claim to the land,” according to legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich. “International law holds that a new country inherits the borders of the prior geopolitical unit in that territory. Israel was preceded by the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine; whose borders included the West Bank.”

Gold also notes the Convention was never meant to apply to a case like the settlements. Morris Abram, one of its drafters, noted that “its authors had in mind heinous crimes committed by Nazi Germany that were raised during the Nuremberg trials. These included forcible evictions of Jewish populations for purposes of mass extermination in death camps in places like Poland.” Israel is not forcibly transferring its population; Jews moving to the West Bank do so voluntarily.

Alan Baker, a former legal adviser to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs,  adds that the “Oslo Accords instituted an agreed legal regime that overrides any other legal framework, including the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention.”

Furthermore, UN Security Council Resolution 242 gives Israel a legal right to be in the West Bank. According to Eugene Rostow, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Johnson administration, “Israel is entitled to administer the territories” it acquired in 1967 until “a just and lasting peace in the Middle East” is achieved.

United States policy has been inconsistent. A State Department legal adviser in the Carter administration, Herbert Hansell, is believed to be the first U.S. official to argue the establishment of settlements in the “occupied territories,” which then included the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights, is “inconsistent with international law.” This was consistent with the views of President Carter at the time who was critical of Israeli settlement policy. Kontorovich has noted that Hansell said the state of occupation would end if Israel entered into a peace treaty with Jordan, which it did in 1994. Nevertheless, the State Department never updated the memo.

Ronald Reagan rejected Hansell’s opinion of settlements. On February 3, 1981, he said, “I disagreed when the previous Administration referred to them as illegal, they’re not illegal.”

On July 20, 1991, Secretary of State James Baker was asked if the Bush administration regarded the settlements as illegal and his answer was, “This is not our policy.”

Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama were very critical of Israel’s settlement policy, but Kerry did not call them “illegal,” he said they were “illegitimate.” His only statement regarding their “illegality” was when he mentioned “settler outposts that are illegal under Israel’s own laws.” Obama abstained rather than veto the UN Security Council resolution labeling settlements illegal, which was generally interpreted as an endorsement of that view; however, it did not affect U.S. policy since he left office shortly thereafter.

The Trump administration’s decision was praised by Israeli leaders but condemned by the Palestinians.

As a candidate, Joe Biden left no doubt about his opposition to settlements. When Israel, for the first time during his administration, announced plans to build new homes in the territories in October 2021, his State Department predictably condemned the decision.


Growth in the Jewish Population in the Disputed Territories
(Click to enlarge)

In response to a deadly terror attack near Ma’ale Adumim in which one person was killed and ten wounded, Israel announced on February 23, 2024, the intention to build 2,350 housing units in Ma’ale Adumim, 300 in Keidar and 694 in Efrat. No construction would begin for months, if not longer, as the units for Ma’ale and Keidar had not received even preliminary approval. Nevertheless, the Biden administration was “disappointed,” and the State Department announced the reversal of the Trump administration’s position, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken declaring that Israel’s plan was “inconsistent with international law.” The administration ingenuously described the decision as a return to the policy of Republican and Democratic presidents.


Since 1967, Israelis have been divided over two competing ideas of what to do with the territories captured in the war. The Land for Peace advocates argue that Israel should evacuate most of the area in exchange for a peace agreement that provides Israelis with peace and security. By contrast, the proponents of Greater Israel insist that the land is part of the biblical homeland of the Jews and should become a permanent part of Israel.

Israel’s adversaries, and even some friends, assert that settlements are an obstacle to peace. The evidence points to the opposite conclusion. From 1949-67, when Jews were forbidden to live on the West Bank, the Arabs refused to make peace with Israel. From 1967-77, the Labor Party established only a few strategic settlements in the territories, yet the Arabs showed no interest in making peace with Israel. In 1977, months after a Likud government committed to greater settlement activity took power, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem. One year later, Israel froze settlements, hoping the gesture would entice other Arabs to join the Camp David peace process. But none would.

During the negotiations with Egypt, all the issues had been resolved, but one remained, Sadat’s insistence that all settlements in the Sinai be removed. Begin didn’t want to remove them, but he called Ariel Sharon for advice. Sharon said that in the interest of peace, the settlements should be dismantled. Israel did just that in 1982, providing compensation to residents for the loss of their homes, farms, and businesses that ranged from $100,000 to $500,000. Nevertheless, a small group of settlers in the town of Yamit refused to leave, and Sharon had the army literally drag them out of their homes to comply with the terms of the agreement with Egypt.

In another Camp David summit in 2000 with President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel offered to dismantle most settlements and create a Palestinian state in exchange for peace. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat rejected the plan but grudgingly accepted the idea that the large settlement blocs would be part of Israel in any peace deal.

When Arab-Israeli peace talks began in late 1991, more than 80% of the West Bank contained no settlements or only sparsely populated ones. Currently, about 69% of Israelis living in the West Bank live in the largest city Betar Illit (population 70,813), and five settlement blocs Ma’ale Adumim, Modi’in Ilit, Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Givat Ze’ev. All except Ariel lie within only a few miles of the 1949 armistice line (often inaccurately referred to as the 1967 border), otherwise known as the Green Line. These settlement blocs could be brought within Israel’s borders to retain an Arab population (from the West Bank) of less than 50,000. It is inconceivable that Israel would evacuate large cities such as Ma’ale Adumim, with a population of approximately 40,000, even after a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

At the 2000 Camp David summit with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, President Bill Clinton, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel insisted that 80% of the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria would be in settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty. Clinton agreed and proposed that Israel annex 4-6% of the West Bank for three settlement blocs to accomplish this demographic objective and swap some territory within Israel in exchange. Arafat grudgingly accepted the idea that the large settlement blocs would be part of Israel in any peace deal but rejected the plan.

Nevertheless, the map proposed by Clinton has been a template for a two-state solution despite the near impossibility of its implementation due to the changing demographics of the West Bank. In 2000, a total of about 200,000 Jews lived in the disputed territories. Today, however, the population is 517,407, with 356,677 (69%) living in the areas Israel is expected to annex. An agreement to dismantle the settlements outside the blocs would require the removal of more than 160,000 people. The expectation during the Camp David talks was that roughly one-third of the Jews living in other settlements would agree to move into these blocs or other parts of Israel. This assumption has never been tested, and that number could be larger or smaller. If it is accurate, the percentage in the blocs would reach 79% but still require Israel to evacuate more than 100,000 people.

Hebron represents one of the most difficult a, areas for Israel to consider evacuating in a peace agreement. Today, more than 600 Jews live in the city, and another 8,321 live in Kiryat Arba. The city was the first parcel of land purchased by the Jewish people in their Promised Land, has great religious significance, and is a place where Jews lived for centuries before the massacre of 1929 and finally resettled in 1968. The problem, politically, is that it is located too far from the Green Line to annex without making the establishment of a possible Palestinian state much more problematic.

Modi’in Illit

The historical record shows that, except for Egypt, and Jordan, the Arab states and Palestinians have been intransigent regardless of the scope of settlement activity. One reason is the conviction that time is on their side. References are frequently made in Arabic writings to how long it took to expel the Crusaders and how it might take a similar length of time to do the same to the Zionists.

Settlement activity may be a stimulus to peace because it forces Arabs to question this tenet. “The Palestinians now realize,” said Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid talks, “that time is now on the side of Israel, which can build settlements and create facts, and that the only way out of this dilemma is face-to-face negotiations.” Consequently, the Arabs went to Madrid and Washington for peace talks despite continued settlement activity. Similarly, the Palestinians negotiated with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, even though he also allowed the number of settlers to grow.

Rights Versus Wisdom

Many settlement critics imply that it would be better for peace if the West Bank were Judenrein. It would certainly be called racist if Jews were barred from living in New York, Paris, or London; barring them from living in the West Bank, the cradle of Jewish civilization, would be no less objectionable.

On the other hand, though Jews may have the right to live in the territories, it still might not be to Israel’s advantage for them to do so. Settlements create serious security concerns for Israel, requiring the deployment of forces to protect Jews living in communities outside the boundaries of the state and diverting resources that might otherwise be used to prepare the military for possible conflicts with enemy armies. The settlements also have had a budgetary impact as hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on infrastructure, incentives, and other material needs for Jews living in these communities. Many Israelis believe that the military and economic cost is not justified and support the removal of some settlements. Those closest to the 1967 border (more accurately, the 1949 armistice line), and especially those surrounding Jerusalem, however, are generally regarded as justified on a variety of grounds and are likely to be incorporated within the ultimate boundary of Israel.

Some Israelis fear the Palestinians may be correct about time being on their side. For many years, projections anticipated an exponential increase in the population of Arabs in Israel and the territories. In 2004, for example, Arnon Soffer, Israel’s most prominent demographer, forecasted that in 2020 approximately 6,300,000 Jews would live in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza combined, while the Palestinian population would be 8,740,000 leaving the Jews as the minority (42% – down from the current 73%) in their own country. This would create the so-called demographic dilemma: If these Palestinians all had the right to vote in a “Greater Israel,” Israel could not maintain its Jewish character, and if they were denied the right to vote, Israel would no longer be a democracy.

Since Soffer’s prediction, however, the Jewish birthrate has increased (to 3.03), and the Palestinians’ has declined (to 3.5). According to the latest population data (as of January 2024), the Jewish population was 7,208,000, and the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel (based on CIA figures for the territories) is 7,354,938 (5.3 million in the PA and 2 million in Israel). Soffer underestimated the Jewish population and grossly overestimated the growth of the Palestinian population.

Beitar Ilit

Such faulty predictions have bolstered the position of those who dismiss the so-called demographic threat to Israel and believe the combination of the Jewish birthrate and immigration will ensure a Jewish majority for the foreseeable future if Israel annexed the territories. While it is true the Palestinians would not comprise the large majority of “Greater Israel” Soffer predicted, if you add Israel’s current Jewish population (9,842,000) with the Palestinians in the territories, you get an entity with more than 15.1 million people, and the percentage of Jews would fall to 48%. 

Settlement Advocates in the Government

To build a coalition to ensure he would return as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu brought leaders of two parties committed to the settlement project into his government in 2022. This set up a confrontation with the Biden administration, which was adamantly opposed to the expansion of settlements. The two governments sparred over the issue but soon became immersed in a dispute over Netanyahu’s plans to reform the judiciary. That too became overshadowed by the Hamas massacre of Israelis on October 7, 2023, and the war that followed.

During the months before the war, the administration had grown increasingly impatient with Netanyahu’s failure to rein in extremist settlers who were attacking Palestinians and vandalizing their property. The issue came to a head during the war as settler violence increased. Fed up, the administration imposed visa bans on settlers involved in these attacks in December 2023. The policy was likely to have limited impact as many settlers are U.S. citizens who don’t need visas, and others would not likely try to enter the United States. Nevertheless, the following day, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant signed an order to detain without trial for four months any Israeli settler suspected of attacking Palestinians.

Peace Agreements

The recognition of the demographic reality explains why no Israeli prime minister, even those rhetorically supporting “Greater Israel,” was willing to annex the territories and why Israelis have engaged in negotiations to trade land for peace and security. Still, when he presented the Interim Agreement (“Oslo 2”) before the Knesset on October 5, 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stated, “I wish to remind you, we made a the Knesset not to uproot any settlement in the framework of the Interim Agreement, nor to freeze construction and natural growth.” Neither the Declaration of Principles of September 13, 1993, nor the Interim Agreement contains any provisions prohibiting or restricting the establishment or expansion of Jewish communities in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. While a clause in the accords prohibits changing the status of the territories, it was intended to ensure only that neither side would take unilateral measures to alter the legal status of the areas (such as annexation or declaration of statehood).

In August 2005, Israel evacuated all the settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank under the disengagement plan initiated by Prime Minister Sharon. This was a dramatic shift in policy by a man considered one of the fathers of the settler movement. Sharon also said that Israel would not keep all the settlements in the West Bank. That looked like it could change when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected in 2019 after pledging to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and to all settlements in the West Bank. He was on the verge of implementing the plan when he was convinced to abandon it as a condition for normalizing relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in what became known as the Abraham Accords.

Israel gave up all the territory it held in Gaza and evacuated some West Bank settlements without any agreement from the Palestinians, who now have complete authority over their population within Gaza. This offered the Palestinians an opportunity to prove that if Israel made territorial concessions, they would be prepared to coexist with their neighbor and build a state of their own. Instead of trading land for peace, however, Israel exchanged territory for terror. Hamas came to power in the Palestinian Authority, and instead of using the opportunity to build the infrastructure for statehood, the Gaza Strip became a scene of chaos as rival Palestinian factions vied for power. Terrorism from Gaza also continued unabated and Israeli towns have been repeatedly hit by rockets fired from the area Israel evacuated.

In January 2020, the Trump administration released its peace plan, which dramatically differed from prior American plans. Instead of calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in more than 90% of the West Bank, the plan envisioned a state in 70% and, rather than expecting Israel to dismantle and evacuate a majority of settlements, it approved of Israel’s annexation of all the settlements. Israelis had reservations about aspects of the plan, and the Palestinians rejected it outright.

Recognizing the lack of will on the part of both Israelis and Palestinians, President Joe Biden made no effort to launch a peace initiative. After the war in Gaza began, however, he began to insist that it end with a resumption of talks to achieve a two-state solution. Given that Israel was fighting a war against terrorists who became a threat after Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip, it was unlikely that Netanyahu or any other government was going to consider the establishment of a state that could turn into another Hamastan.

Sources: Anthony Cordesman, From Peace to War: Land for Peace or Settlements for War, (DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 15, 2003), pp. 17-21.
Larry Derfner, “Sounding the Alarm About Israel’s Demographic Crisis,” Forward, (January 9, 2004).
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Herb Keinon,  Security Cabinet Unanimously Approves new Settlement, First Time in 25 Years, Jerusalem Post, (March 31, 2017).
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Mitchel Hochberg.  Construction Begins at New Amona Settlement, The Washington Institute, (July 12, 2017).
Yotam Berger, How Many Settlers Really Live in the West Bank? Haaretz, (June 15, 2017).
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Ariel photo by Salonmor is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Betar Illit photo by Yoninah is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Modi’in Illit photo by Dvirraz, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Mevo’ot Yericho is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.