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Myths & Facts Online - Settlements

“Israel has no right to be in the West Bank. Israeli settlements are illegal.”
“Settlements are an obstacle to peace.”
“The Geneva Convention prohibits the construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territories.”
“Israel is provocatively settling Jews in predominantly Arab towns, and has established so many facts on the ground territorial compromise is no longer possible.”
“At Camp David, during Jimmy Carter's presidency, Israel agreed to halt the construction of settlements for five years.”
“The Mitchell Report made clear that Israeli settlement policy is as much to blame for the breakdown of the peace process as Palestinian violence and that a settlement freeze is necessary to end the violence.”
“Israel's plan to link Jerusalem to Ma'aleh Adumim is meant to sabotage the peace process.”
“Israel must dismantle all settlements in the West Bank or peace is impossible.”


“Israel has no right to be in the West Bank. Israeli settlements are illegal.”


Jews have lived in Judea and Samaria — the West Bank — since ancient times. The only time Jews have been prohibited from living in the territories in recent decades was during Jordan's rule from 1948 to 1967. This prohibition was contrary to the Mandate for Palestine adopted by the League of Nations, which provided for the establishment of a Jewish state, and specifically encouraged “close settlement by Jews on the land,” which included Judea and Samaria.

Numerous legal authorities dispute the charge that settlements are “illegal.” Stephen Schwebel, formerly President of the International Court of Justice, 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.1

According to Eugene Rostow, a former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the Johnson Administration, Resolution 242 gives Israel a legal right to be in the West Bank. The resolution, Rostow noted, “allows Israel to administer the territories” it won in 1967 “until ‘'a just and lasting peace in the Middle East’' is achieved.”2


“Settlements are an obstacle to peace.”


Settlements have never been an obstacle to peace.

  • 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 were unwilling to negotiate peace with Israel.
  • In 1977, months after a Likud government committed to greater settlement activity took power, Egyptian President Sadat went to Jerusalem and later signed a peace treaty with Israel. Incidentally, Israeli settlements existed in the Sinai and those were removed as part of the agreement with Egypt.
  • One year later, Israel froze settlement building for three months, hoping the gesture would entice other Arabs to join the Camp David peace process. But none would.
  • In 1994, Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel and settlements were not an issue; if anything, the number of Jews living in the territories was growing.
  • Between June 1992 and June 1996, under Labor-led governments, the Jewish population in the territories grew by approximately 50 percent. This rapid growth did not prevent the Palestinians from signing the Oslo accords in September 1993 or the Oslo 2 agreement in September 1995.
  • In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to dismantle dozens of settlements, but the Palestinians still would not agree to end the conflict.
  • In August 2005, Israel evacuated all of the settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in Northern Samaria, but terror attacks continued.

Settlement activity may be a stimulus to peace because it forced the Palestinians and other Arabs to reconsider the view 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. The growth in the Jewish population in the territories forced the Arabs to question this tenet. “The Palestinians now realize,” said Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, “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.” 3

Many Israelis nevertheless have concerns about the expansion of settlements. Some consider them provocative, others worry that the settlers are particularly vulnerable, and note they have been targets of repeated Palestinian terrorist attacks. To defend them, large numbers of soldiers are deployed who would otherwise be training and preparing for a possible future conflict with an Arab army. Some Israelis also object to the amount of money that goes to communities beyond the Green Line, and special subsidies that have been provided to make housing there more affordable. Still others feel the settlers are providing a first line of defense and developing land that rightfully belongs to Israel.

The disposition of settlements is a matter for the final status negotiations. The question of where the final border will be between Israel and a Palestinian entity will likely be influenced by the distribution of these Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria (the border with Gaza was unofficially defined following Israel’s withdrawal). Israel wants to incorporate as many settlers as possible within its borders while the Palestinians want to expel all Jews from the territory they control.

If Israel withdraws toward the 1949 armistice line unilaterally, or as part of a political settlement, many settlers will face one or more options: remain in the territories (the disengagement from Gaza suggests this may not be possible), expulsion from their homes, or voluntary resettlement in Israel (with financial compensation).

The impediment to peace is not the existence of Jewish communities in the disputed territories,, it is the Palestinians’ unwillingness to accept a state next to Israel instead of one replacing Israel.


“The Geneva Convention prohibits the construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territories.”


The Fourth Geneva Convention 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 insure that local populations who came under occupation would not be forced to move. This is in no way relevant to the settlement issue. Jews are not being forced to go to the West Bank; 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 Palestine. “The Jewish right of settlement in the area is equivalent in every way to the right of the local population to live there,” according to Professor Eugene Rostow, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs.4

As a matter of policy, moreover, Israel does not requisition private land for the establishment of settlements. Housing construction is allowed on private land only after determining that no private rights will be violated. The settlements also do not displace Arabs living in the territories. The media sometimes gives the impression that for every Jew who moves to the West Bank, several hundred Palestinians are forced to leave. The truth is that the vast majority of settlements have been built in uninhabited areas and even the handful established in or near Arab towns did not force any Palestinians to leave.


“Israel is provocatively settling Jews in predominantly Arab towns, and has established so many facts on the ground territorial compromise is no longer possible.”


Altogether, built-up settlement area is less than two percent of the disputed territories. An estimated 70 percent of the settlers live in what are in effect suburbs of major Israeli cities such as Jerusalem. These are areas that virtually the entire Jewish population believes Israel must retain to ensure its security, and even President Clinton indicated in December 2000 that they should remain under permanent Israeli sovereignty.5

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. Still, 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.6

Today, approximately 270,000 Jews live in roughly 150 communities in the West Bank. The overwhelming majority of these settlements have fewer than 1,000 citizens and several have only a few dozen residents. Analysts have noted that 70-80 percent of the Jews could be brought within Israel's borders with minor modifications of the Green Line.


“At Camp David, during Jimmy Carter's presidency, Israel agreed to halt the construction of settlements for five years.”


The five-year period agreed to at Camp David was the time allotted to Palestinian self-government in the territories. The Israeli moratorium on West Bank settlements agreed to by Prime Minister Menachem Begin was only for three months.

Israel's position on the matter received support from an unexpected source: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who said: “We agreed to put a freeze on the establishment of settlements for the coming three months, the time necessary in our estimation for signing the peace treaty.”7

The Palestinians rejected the Camp David Accords and therefore the provisions related to them were never implemented. Had they accepted the terms offered by Begin, it is very likely the self-governing authority would have developed long before now into the state the Palestinians say they desire.


The Palestinians rejected the Camp David Accords and therefore the provisions related to them were never implemented. Had they accepted the terms offered by Begin, it is very likely the self-governing authority would have developed long before now into the state the Palestinians say they desire.MYTH

“The Mitchell Report said Israeli settlement policy was as much to blame for the breakdown of the peace process as Palestinian violence and that a settlement freeze was a prerequisite to ending the violence.”


In November 2000, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was appointed to lead a fact-finding committee to investigate the origins of what would become the Palestinian War, and explore how to prevent future violence. The report his committee issued did recommend a settlement freeze — as one of more than 15 different confidence-building measures — but Mitchell and Warren Rudman, another member of the committee, made clear that settlement activity was in no way equated with Palestinian terrorism. They explicitly stated in a letter clarifying their view: “We do not in any way equate Palestinian terrorism with Israeli settlement activity….”


Mitchell and Rudman also disputed the idea that the cessation of settlement construction and terrorism were linked. “The immediate aim must be to end the violence....Part of the effort to end the violence must include an immediate resumption of security cooperation between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority aimed at preventing violence and combating terrorism.” They added, “Regarding terrorism, we call upon the Palestinian Authority, as a confidence-building measure, to make clear through concrete action, to Israelis and Palestinians alike, that terror is reprehensible and unacceptable, and the Palestinian Authority is to make a total effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators acting in its jurisdiction.”8



“If settlement-building is now concentrated in areas that the Palestinians themselves acknowledge will remain part of Israel in any future peace agreement, why the obsessive focus on settlements as an ‘obstacle to peace?’”

— Yossi Klein Halevi9


“Israel’s plan to link Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim is meant to sabotage the peace process.”


In March 2005, Israel announced the intention to build 3,500 homes on a strip of territory between the community of Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem.10 The decision immediately caused an uproar as Palestinian officials claimed it was “a kind of terror against the peace process and against the Palestinian people,” and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was at odds with U.S. policy.11

This is a good example of wherethe it is importancet ofto understanding not only the politics of the issue, but the geography.

Ma’aleh Adumim is in the West Bank, so it is called a settlement, but it is  actually a suburb of Israel's capital, barely three miles outside the city limits, a ten-minute drive away. Ma’aleh Adumim is not a recently constructed outpost on a hilltop; it is a 30-year-old community that is popular because it is clean, safe, and close to where many residents work. It is also the largest Jewish community in the territories, with a population of 327,300.

Because of its size and location, it is understood by both Israelis and Palestinians that Ma’aleh Adumim will not be dismantled or evacuated; it will be part of Israel after a peace agreement is reached. That is why the plan to link the city to Jerusalem was conceived during Prime Minister Rabin's term. The development was part of his plan to connect all of the large settlement blocs just outside Jerusalem’s city limits.

To understand why the plan has the support of Israel’s major parties, just look at a map. If Ma’aleh Adumim is not linked to Jerusalem, the city would be an island. We hear a lot about Palestinian concerns about the contiguity of a future Palestinian state, but the same principal applies to the future boundaries of Israel.

Rendering of Clinton proposal showing Ma'aleh Adumim incorporated
in Israel without affecting the contiguity of a Palestinian state (dark shading)*

Why should it be a problem for Israel to fill in the empty gap between the city and this bedroom community? The corridor is approximately 3,250 acres and does not have any inhabitants, so no Palestinians will be displaced. And why shouldn't Israel be able to build in and around the city that the U.S. Congress said “should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel” and “should remain an undivided city”?

In his April 14, 2004, letter to Prime Minister Sharon, President Bush acknowledged that Israel would incorporate some settlements inside its borders:

In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.12

Given that Ma’aleh Adumim is the largest of these population centers, the decision to develop around the town is consistent with the policy expressed in Bush's letter. It is also consistent, incidentally, with the Clinton plan.

Would the completion of the building project known as E-1 prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state? Again, a look at the map shows that it would not. The security fence is being built roughly along the Green Line, and around the major settlement blocs, such as Ma’aleh Adumim, which are expected to be within the final negotiated borders of the state. The area of the West Bank beyond the fence is contiguous.

“Clearly, in the permanent agreement we will have to give up some of the Jewish settlements.”

— Prime Minister Ariel Sharon13


“Israel must dismantle all the settlements in the West Bank or peace is impossible.”


When serious negotiations begin over the final status of the West Bank, battle lines will be drawn over which settlements should be incorporated into Israel, and which must be evacuated. In August 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acknowledged that “not all the settlements that are today in Judea and Samaria will remain Israeli.”

In Gaza, Israel’s intent was to withdraw completely, and no settlements were viewed as vital to Israel for economic, security, or demographic reasons. The situation in the West Bank is completely different because Jews have strong historic and religious connections to the area stretching back centuries. Moreover, the West Bank is an area with strategic significance because of its proximity to Israel’s heartland and the fact that roughly one-quarter of Israel’s water resources are located there.

The disengagement from Gaza involved only 21 settlements and approximately 8,500 Jews; more than 100 settlements with a population of roughly 250,000 are located in Judea and Samaria. Any new evacuation from the West Bank will involve another gut-wrenching decision that most settlers and their supporters will oppose with even greater ferocity than the Gaza disengagement. Most Israelis, however, favor withdrawing from small, isolated communities, and about half of the settlements have fewer than 500 residents.

Approximately two-thirds of the Jews in the West Bank live in five settlement “blocs” that are all near the 1967 border. Most Israelis believe these blocs should become part of Israel when final borders are drawn and Prime Minister Sharon has repeatedly said the large settlement blocs will “remain in our hands.” The table below lists the “consensus” settlements:


No. of Communities


Approximate. Area (sq. miles)

Ma’ale Adumim




Modiin Illit








Gush Etzion




Givat Ze’ev








As the table shows, these are large communities with thousands of residents. Evacuating them would be the equivalent of dismantling major American cities the size of Maryland’s capital, Annapolis, Juneau, Alaska, or Augusta, Georgia.

Ma’ale Adumim is a suburb of Israel’s capital, barely three miles outside Jerusalem’s city limits, a ten-minute drive away. Ma’ale Adumim is not a recently constructed outpost on a hilltop; it is a 30-year-old community that is popular because it is clean, safe, and close to where many residents work. It is also the largest Jewish city in the territories, with a population of 33,259. Approximately 6,000 people live in surrounding settlements that are included in the Ma’ale bloc. Israel has long planned to fill in the empty gap between Jerusalem and this bedroom community (referred to as the E1 project). The corridor is approximately 3,250 acres and does not have any inhabitants, so no Palestinians would be displaced. According to the Clinton plan, Ma’ale was to be part of Israel.

The Gush Etzion Bloc consists of 18 communities with a population of more than 42,000 just 10 minutes from Jerusalem. Jews lived in this area prior to 1948, but the Jordanian Legion destroyed the settlements and killed 240 women and children during Israel’s War of Independence. After Israel recaptured the area in 1967, descendants of those early settlers reestablished the community. The largest of the settlements is the city of Betar Illit with more than 24,000 residents.

The Givat Ze’ev bloc includes five communities just northwest of Jerusalem. Givat Ze’ev, with a population of nearly 11,000, is the largest.

Modiin Illit is a bloc with four communities. The city of Modiin Illit is the largest, with more than 26,000 people situated just over the Green LineGreen Line, about 23 miles northwest of Jerusalem and the same distance east of Tel Aviv.

Ariel is now the heart of the second most populous bloc of settlements. The city is located just 25 miles east of Tel Aviv and 31 miles north of Jerusalem. Ariel and the surrounding communities expand Israel’s narrow waist (which was just 9 miles wide prior to 1967) and ensure that Israel has a land route to the Jordan Valley in case Israel needs to fight a land war to the east.  It is more controversial than the other consensus settlements because it is the furthest from the 1949 Armistice Line, extending approximately 12 miles into the West Bank. Nevertheless, Barak’s proposal at Camp David included Ariel among the settlement blocs to be annexed to Israel; the Clinton plan also envisioned incorporating Ariel within the new borders of Israel.

The Future Borders of Israel and Palestine?

Most peace plans, including Clinton’s, assumed that Israel would annex sufficient territory to incorporate 75-80% of the Jews currently living in the West Bank. Using the figures in the table above, however, it appears that Israel would fall short of that demographic goal even if these six blocs were annexed. The total population of these communities is approximately 170,000, which is roughly 63% of the estimated 270,000 Jews living in Judea and Samaria. The expectation, however, is that roughly one-third of the Jews living in other settlements will move into these blocs, which would bring the total close to 80%, but still require Israel to evacuate more than 50,000 people.

In 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said Israel would keep the settlement blocs of Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, and Gush Etzion. Prior to the 2000 Camp David Summit, even Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians could accept Israel holding onto Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev.

At Camp David, Israel insisted that 80 percent of the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria would be in settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty. President Clinton agreed and proposed that Israel annex 4-6 percent of the West Bank for three settlement blocs to accomplish this demographic objective and swap some territory within Israel in exchange.

Recognizing the demographics of the area, President Bush acknowledged the inevitability of some Israeli towns in the West Bank being annexed to Israel in his 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon. In his meeting a year later with Palestinian Authority President Abbas, however, he seemed to hedge his support by saying that any such decision would have to be mutually agreed to by Israelis and Palestinians. Nevertheless, the future border is likely to approximate the route of the security fence, given the Israeli prerequisite (with U.S. approval) of incorporating most settlers within Israel.

Would the incorporation of settlement blocs prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state? A look at map 24 shows that it would not. The total area of these communities is only about 1.5 percent of the West Bank. A kidney-shaped state linked to the Gaza Strip by a secure passage would be contiguous. Some argue that the E1 project linking Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem would cutoff east Jerusalem, but even that is not necessarily true as Israel has proposed constructing a four-lane underpass to guarantee free passage between the West Bank and the Arab sections of Jerusalem.

Ultimately, Israel may decide to unilaterally disengage from the West Bank and determine which settlements it will incorporate within the borders it delineates. Israel would prefer, however, to negotiate a peace treaty with the Palestinians that would specify which Jewish communities will remain intact within the mutually agreed border of Israel, and which will need to be evacuated. Israel will undoubtedly insist that some or all of the “consensus” blocs become part of Israel.


1American Journal of International Law, (April, 1970), pp. 345-46.
2New Republic, (October 21, 1991), p. 14.
3Washington Post, (November 1, 1991).
4American Journal of International Law, (1990, Vvol. 84), p. 72.
5>Ha’aretzHaaretz, (September 13, 2001).
6Jerusalem Post, (October 22, 1991).
7Middle East News Agency, (September 20, 1978).
8Letter from George Mitchell and Warren Rudman to ADL Director Abraham Foxman, (May 11, 2001).
9Los Angeles Times, (June 20, 2001).
10“Mofaz okays 3,500 housing units in Ma'aleh Adumim,” Jerusalem Post, (March 20, 2005).
11Etgar Lefkovits, “Building controversy,” Jerusalem Post, (March 28, 2005).
12Letter from George W. Bush to Ariel Sharon, (April 14, 2004).
13Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Address to the Likud Central Committee, (January 5, 2004).

*Map courtesy of Dennis Ross from his book, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

See also: Israel
The Peace Process

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