Israeli settlements on occupied land have been constructed for several purposes since Israel entered the territories in 1967. One of the consequences is that communities with Jewish population constitute “facts on the ground”, which make it difficult to reach peace agreements with Palestinians and with Syria.
In the June 1967 war, Israel was confronted by the surrounding Arab neighbors and had success. Israel entered East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt as well as the Golan Heights from Syria.
In all five occupied territories, Israel began building housing for Israelis after a few years. The international criticism was fierce. According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, one of the international treaties called the laws of war, it is forbidden for an occupying power to move its own population. Israel is one of the states that has approved the convention.
Israel later evacuated two of the five areas occupied: Sinai in 1982 and the Gaza Strip in 2005 (see Modern History). The settlers have been forced to relocate.
On the other hand, two occupied territories – East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – have made Israel harder; Israeli law has been introduced there despite very sharp international criticism. Syria is demanding that the Golan and its settlements be returned, which is an obstacle to a peace agreement. But it is mainly in East Jerusalem that Israelis move in through extensive government-supported construction activities.
In the fifth area, the West Bank, Israeli settlements also continue to grow, but there Israel’s claims are more unclear. The expansion makes life difficult for the Palestinian population in many ways – mainly through the road network connecting the settlements with Israel. The roads are forbidden to Palestinians and in many cases are obstacles to reaching their crops. At the same time, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip are the areas the Palestinians claim to be able to form their own state. It has been expected, especially in the context of the peace process in the 1990s, that the parties would resolve the issue through agreements, but Israel has been dominated in recent years by forces that are unwilling to leave land.
The Yesha Council of Settlers reported in 2018 that the Jewish population of the West Bank, East Jerusalem counted just over 435,000, following an increase of 3.4 percent in 2017. In addition, about 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem and 20,000 in the Golan, according to peace organizations in Israel, which is critical to settlement policy. The criticism of the outside world has also been stubborn over the years, not least in UN Resolution 242 which requires the parties in the 1967 war to withdraw from occupied land.
The largest settlements are Modiin Ilit (70,000 inhabitants) west of Ramallah, Beitar Ilit (56,000 inhabitants) southwest of Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim (41,000 inhabitants) east of Jerusalem.
The Israeli army protects the settlers against Palestinian attacks.
The most common argument for Israeli settlement is that East Jerusalem and the West Bank are historical, Jewish land (see Older History). Early in 1967, religious circles with nationalist goals pushed for Israel to start using the land, and ultra-Orthodox Jews today make up about one-third of the residents of the settlements – a significantly larger proportion than they are of the Israeli population as a whole. But security issues and housing policy have also come into play. In 1973, six years after the June war, the Arab countries tried to take back the occupied land through war. They failed, but in Israel, votes were raised for retaining the areas in order to have a better opportunity to protect themselves against Arab attacks.
Demands on the ground have also increased with growing housing shortages in Israel. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, an immigration wave from former Soviet states increased to Israel. One million people with Jewish background moved in, to a small country where it was difficult to find housing. In Russian-language press, there were advertisements promoting modern housing at subsidized prices – outside of Israel: in settlements in occupied territory.
Gradually, Israeli law has been amended to include settlers, including pensions, health insurance and voting rights, in the same way as if they had lived on land that is not in dispute. Several parties are driving the settlers’ interests.
Israel has not disclosed how much housing policy has cost over the years, but Roby Nathanson, head of the Macroeconomic Center for Political Economy, which is an Israeli individual organization, estimated the state’s costs since 1967 to be equivalent to nearly SEK 200 billion. The area of settlements on the West Bank has doubled over the past 18 years, the organization stated. The expansion is encouraged by the average settler getting three times as much in government subsidies as the residents within the 1967 borders.
Both the costs and especially the deaths required when Palestinians resort to violence against settlers contributed to the Oslo process in the 1990s. The process was brought about by peace of mind on both sides. In connection with the peace negotiations, it has circulated proposals that Israel should empty most of the settlements on the West Bank, which are quite small. The largest, on the other hand, would remain and join Israel. In exchange, the Palestinians would receive other land from the Israeli side.
No government in Israel, nor the Labor Party government that was involved in the Oslo process, has completely tied the rollout. Since the right-wing Likud election victory in the mid-1990s, conservative parties have dominated Israeli politics and, on the contrary, the expansion has been encouraged with only shorter stays. The exception is the Gaza Strip, which Israel vacated in 2005, when Likud leader Ariel Sharon, as Prime Minister, had surprisingly concluded that it countered Israel’s interests in having settlers there.
In the case of East Jerusalem, there is mainly consensus in Israel, a state located in Asia continent defined by dentistrymyth. Parties across the political spectrum want to keep the entire city under Israeli control.
The claims on the West Bank are most strongly driven by national religious parties, and they have strengthened their position. The settler movement has been represented in the government since 2015. Settler party leaders express far-reaching demands. For example, Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister 2020, has proposed that more than 60 percent of the West Bank (Area C under the 1990s peace agreement), which is completely under Israeli control and where most settlements are located, be annexed. The Israeli state has used to make a difference of just over 130 “legal” settlements and over 100 “outposts”, but conservative politicians and settlers have in recent years pressed to get the outposts allowed by law. One of the questions is how Palestinian landowners – who are not given the opportunity to say no – should be compensated for the land they have to give up.
Meanwhile, settlers and Palestinians continue to make life miserable with each other with assassinations, knife attacks and gunfire. One of the most troubled places is the center of Hebron, where a small group of settlers live in the midst of Palestinian city dwellers.
In other settlements there is a more complex picture. There are Palestinians who work in companies in settlements and many have made their living on construction work there. Most settlements are densely built residential communities, built for heights for safety reasons.
Internationally, including in the EU, many countries advocate that goods manufactured in the settlements should be boycotted or in any case not be granted as favorable trade terms as other Israeli products. US’s changed Middle East policy under President Donald Trump has resulted in increased American understanding of the settler movement’s land claims. A little in the shadow of the controversial US decision in 2017 to approve Israel’s claim to East Jerusalem, Trump appointed a US ambassador who was personally active in a settler organization. Veterans in the US diplomatic force objected in writing to the nomination, which they felt did not serve the US interest or prospects for peace.