The term “Settlements” usually refers to the towns and villages that Jews established in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the Gaza Strip (prior to the disengagement) since Israel captured the area in the Six-Day War of 1967. In some cases, the settlements are in the same area where flourishing Jewish communities have lived for thousands of years.
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 were 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 10 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 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 percent 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.
When Arab-Israeli peace talks began in late 1991, more than 80 percent of the West Bank contained no settlements or only sparsely populated ones. Currently, about 58 percent of Israelis living in the West Bank live in just five settlement blocs – Ma’ale Adumim, Modi’in Ilit, Ariel, Gush Etzion, Givat Ze’ev – which, with the exception of Ariel, all 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, and even Yasser Arafat grudgingly accepted at Camp David the idea that the large settlement blocs would be part of Israel.
Hebron represents one of the most difficult areas for Israel to consider evacuating in a peace agreement. Today, approximately 600 Jews live in the city and another 8,000 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.
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 was 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 128 West Bank settlements at the beginning of February 2022 was 490,493, roughly 5 percent of Israel’s total population. This figure excludes 330,000 residents of the Old City and 22 surrounding communities that are technically 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 (prior to the Trump plan) for a Palestinian.
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.
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).
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.” The area had previously been occupied by Jordan.
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 “wrote 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 had no effect on 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)
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. In another Camp David summit in 2000, Ehud Barak offered to dismantle most settlements and create a Palestinian state in exchange for peace, and Yasser Arafat rejected the plan.
Israel also proved willing to dismantle settlements in the interest of peace. During the Camp David 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 (Jerusalem Post, January 8, 2004). 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.
The historical record shows that with the exception of 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.
The implication of many settlement critics is 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, forecast 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 74%) 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 3.17) and the Palestinians’ has declined (to 3.2 in the West Bank and 3.97 in Gaza). According to the latest population data (as of January 2021), the Jewish population is 6,870,000 and the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel (based on CIA figures for the territories) is 6,862,308 (4.9 million in the PA and 1.2 million in Israel). Soffer underestimated the Jewish population and grossly overestimated the growth of the Palestinian population.
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 population (9,291,000) with the Palestinians you get an entity with nearly 14.2 million people, and the percentage of Jews would still fall under 50%. Some argue that Israel should not annex Gaza – what would happen to it is unclear – in which case the Jewish population would increase to 56% of the population but the Palestinians would still make up a significant minority (44% – up from 21% today) and pose the same political challenge.
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 commitment...to 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. This could change if Benjamin Netanyahu leads the next Israeli government and fulfills his 2019 campaign pledge to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and to all settlements in the West Bank.
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 to 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.
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).
B'tselem, July 11, 2009.
Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics.
Herb Keinon, Security Cabinet Unanimously Approves new Settlement, First Time in 25 Years, Jerusalem Post, (March 31, 2017).
Sara Yael Hirschhorn, City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.
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).
Tovah Lazaroff, Settler housing construction drops to 6-year low under Trump, Jerusalem Post, (June 19, 2018).
David Rosenberg, “Israeli Jewish fertility rate tops Arab rate, hits 45-year high,” Arutz Sheva, (April 10, 2019).
“Cabinet Approves Mevo’ot Yericho, the 6th New Official Settlement since Oslo,” Peace Now, (September 15, 2019).
Michael Bachner, “Netanyahu says he will extend ‘Jewish sovereignty’ to all West Bank settlements,” Times of Israel, (September 1, 2019).
Ben Sales, “Netanyahu’s push to annex the Jordan Valley, explained,” JTA, September 10, 2019).
Yaakov Katz, “West Bank Jewish Population Stats,” (Updated to January 30, 2022).
Stephen M. Schwebel, “What Weight to Conquest?” American Journal of International Law, (April 1970), pp. 345–46.
Eugene Rostow, “Bricks and Stones: Settling for Leverage,” New Republic, April 23,1990).
Dore Gold, “A long awaited correction,” Israel Hayom, (November 18, 2019).
Stephen P. Mulligan, “The United States and the ‘World Court,’” Congressional Research Service, (October 17, 2018).
“Kerry: Israeli settlements are illegitimate,” Al Jazeera, (November 6, 2013).
“Excerpts From Interview With President Reagan Conducted By Five Reporters,” New York Times, (February 3, 1981).
Paul Claussen and Evan M. Duncan, Eds., American Foreign Policy Current Documents, (NY: William S. Hein & Co., 2008), p. 570.
Alan Baker, “The Legality of Israel’s Settlements: Flaws in the Carter-Era Hansell Memorandum,” JCPA, (November 21, 2019).
Eugene Kontorovich, “Pompeo Busts the ‘Occupation’ Myth,” Wall Street Journal, (November 19, 2019).
Ben Samuels, “U.S. gives harshest public rebuke yet on Israeli settlement plans,” Haaretz, (October 26, 2021).
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.
Mevo’ot Yericho is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.