The Israeli Settlement System in the Occupied Palestinian Territory*

"The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies" The Fourth Geneva Convention, article 49(6).

Israel’s settlements policy, the permanent transfer of parts of its Israeli Jewish citizens to the occupied territories, started immediately after it occupied the West Bank, including Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai in 1967. Since then Israel has transferred approximately 350,000 Jewish settlers to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, 180,000 of which live within the illegally expanded municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem. The aim of such policies has been the colonization of parts of the occupied territories and to prevent the realization by the Palestinian people of their right to self-determination.

During the first decade of occupation, 1967-77, when Labor was in government, settlements were established in a pattern that embodied the Allon plan, which called for the annexation of parts of the occupied territories, including: Jerusalem and its immediate suburbs; the Jordan Valley; the "Judean desert"; Southern Gaza Strip; and the Golan Heights.

When Likud came to power in 1977, there were about 50,000 Israeli Jewish settlers in annexed Jerusalem and only 7,000 in 45 settlements throughout the occupied territory. The Likud embraced the settlements system and its expansion as the Likud’s key strategy to intensify the Jewish colonization of the occupied territories. The Likud adopted the "Master Plan for the Development of Settlement in Judea and Samaria 1979-1983". The plan stressed the establishment of numerous settlement outposts and large urban concentrations in three principal areas: A north South axis running from the Golan through the Jordan Valley and down the east cost of Sinai; A widened corridor around Jerusalem; and the populated western slopes of the "Samarian" heartland.

With this settlement plan the Likud established an extensive pattern of settlements that disrupted the continuity of the Palestinian territory. During the 80s, the settlement activities jumped to an average of 1,000 to 2,000 housing units per year, in addition to the government’s investment in major infrastructure. The number of Jewish settlers increased dramatically during the 1980s and the early 1990s. In 1985 the number of settlers (excluding East Jerusalem) reached 42,000 and by 1990 the number was 76,000 settlers in approximately 150 settlements, not including those in East Jerusalem. By 1995 the settler population increased to approximately 145,000 excluding East Jerusalem.

In the process, Israel applied complex measures for illegal land acquisition, ranging from the control of all state and communal lands, the application of the emergency regulations of 1945 and of the absentee property procedures, the change of laws related to the expropriation of land, to the direct confiscation of privately owned land. That was coupled with massive exploitation of natural resources, especially water resources. Also, various significant financial incentives were offered to encourage Israelis to move to the occupied territories, including rebates and low interest loans, free infrastructure services and the employment of a high percentage of settlers in the public sector.

At the beginning, the majority of settlers belonged to the left and center of the political spectrum. At a later stage, however, religious Jews became more prominent as settlers from the mainstream began to move to a few specific urban settlements and settlements around East Jerusalem. The majority of settlers have always been armed and many have been the source of extreme harassment to the Palestinian people. Generally, however, the settlers remain within their defended settlements, maintaining links directly with Israel and with each other, not with the Palestinian population around them. Gradually, and especially with the increase of bypass roads, settlements have come to constitute a separate structure of life, differing greatly from that of the Palestinian people, with different living conditions, different means and the application by the Israeli army of different rules and laws to those settlers.

As such, the Israeli settlement system, with its various dimensions, including the transfer of Israelis to the occupied territories; the illegal acquisition of land; the exploitation of natural resources; the establishment of a separate structure of life and the subversion of the exercise by the Palestinian people of their rights, is a distinctive combination of classic colonialism waged on the basis of apartheid-like arrangements. Clearly, development and expansion of the above-described settlement system was carried forth despite the vehement opposition of the Palestinian people as well as the firm stance of the international community.

Legal Status:    The Israeli settlement system is illegal under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 1949, of which Israel is a signatory party, prohibits in all cases the transfer of parts of the civilian population of the occupying Power into the territory it occupies. The Convention, as well as the Hague Convention on the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annexed Regulations of 1907, which together constitute customary international law, prohibit the destruction, seizure and confiscation of private or public properties in occupied territories (except when absolutely necessary for military reasons).

The applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 has been asserted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, by United Nations organs and agencies, as well as by every country in the world. The United Nations Security Council reaffirmed the applicability of the Convention to the occupied territories, including Jerusalem, in twenty-four? resolutions. The Council has specifically dealt with the issue of settlements, established a Commission in this regard and considers settlements to be illegal and an obstacle to peace. In addition, the Council has called for the cessation of all settlement activities and the dismantling of the existing ones. The Council has also repeatedly declared that all measures taken by Israel to change the demographic composition, physical character, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, are null and void and have no legal validity (e.g. resolutions 446 (1979), 452 (1979) and 465 (1980)).

Moreover, settlements as a means of colonizing Palestinian and Arab land, which might result in depriving the Palestinian people of their right to self-determination, violate the Charter of the United Nations, human rights covenants, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.

The Present Situation: There now exist approximately 350,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, 180,000 of which live within the illegally extended municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem. According to the Israeli Ministry of Interior, the settler population in the West Bank [excluding Jerusalem] and Gaza strip has grown by 3.3% from 163,881 to 169,339 in the first six months of 1998. According to this report 86,202 settlers live in nine of the 144 settlements, including "Ma'aleh Adumim","Ariel", "Givat Ze'ev", "Efrat", "Kiryat Sefer" and "Betar". (There are also 36 settlements in the Golan Heights).

In total, the settlements occupy around 7% of the overall occupied Palestinian territory. This percentage dramatically increases when calculations include the land designated for planned expansion of settlements. Currently, the building of settlements continues, as well as the expropriation of land and the building of bypass roads for the settlements.

The Peace Process:    Within the context of the Middle East peace process, the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization concluded the Declaration of Principles of 1993 and the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip of 1995. The parties recognized their mutual legitimate rights and agreed that the peace process should lead to the implementation of Security Council resolution 242 (1967). The parties also agreed to postpone negotiations on specific issues, including the settlements, to a second stage of negotiations to commence in May 1996.

These agreements do not and should not alter the status of settlements, which remain illegal. The agreements require the Israeli government to desist from any settlement activities as new facts on the ground would only preempt or alter the outcome of expected negotiations, and render the agreements between the parties useless. Furthermore, additional settlement activities defy not only the basic logic of the peace process, but also the mutual recognition between the parties and the goal of achieving a just and comprehensive peace. As such, settlement activities of any kind clearly violate these agreements.

Positions of the Parties: The Palestinian side considers Israeli settlements to be illegal and an obstacle to peace and maintains that no settlement activities should take place during the transitional period. At a later stage, the settlement system should be dismantled and Palestinian claims for redress should be satisfied. This does not interfere with the possibility of Jews living under Palestinian sovereignty.

The successive Israeli governments maintained their rejection of the de jure applicability of the Geneva Convention to the territories it occupied in 1967. Israel presents several arguments to support its stand, all of which are rejected by the rest of the international community. However, immediately after the occupation in 1967, Israel’s military government instructed its military courts in the occupied territories to assume the Fourth Geneva Convention to be in effect. This provision was contained in Military Order 3 of 7 June 1967, which was later deleted. On another occasion, in the same period, Israel’s Foreign Ministry advised Minister Levy Eshkol, “that civilian settlement in the Administered Territories contradicts the express order of the Fourth Geneva Accord”. The Israeli High Court, in a case in 1979, ruled that the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention "has not been absorbed into the internal, municipal (internal) law." And thus it is not applicable by the Israeli courts because it is "contractual" international law, whereas, the Hague Convention of 1907, is declaratory of customary international law, and therefore, the court ruled, is applicable by Israeli 'municipal' courts without specific legislation. At a later date, in another case, Israel’s High Court itself invoked the Fourth Geneva Convention, in a letter case addressing the rights of Palestinian prisoners.

Lately, as a result of mounting outside pressure, Israeli governments insist on expanding the existing settlements under the pretext of natural growth, although some expansions are planned for ten times the size the existing settlement. They have also refused to limit settlement activities within the extended municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, while not excluding the possibility of building new ones. Since Mr. Netanyahu came into office, in 1996, his government has approved the construction of 9,256 housing units in settlements.

The positions of successive U.S. administrations have varied but a common denominator has been the classification of settlements as an obstacle to peace. Since 1967 war until the Reagan administration, the American position maintained that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to the occupied territories, and hence settlements are illegal under international law. In the 1980s, the position of the Reagan administration was watered down to one that considers settlements as “an obstacle to peace” and has been maintained since by the successive administration. The U.S. stated in its 1991 letter of assurances to the Palestinian side to the Madrid Peace Conference that "the U.S. has opposed and will continue to oppose settlement activities in territories occupied since 1967, which remain an obstacle to peace." However, the Clinton administration went even further, by classifying settlement activity as "unhelpful" and in light of the peace process started calling upon the parties to refrain from any "unilateral action", a vague term that meant to address settlement activities and other actions that are contrary to the peace agreements. The Clinton administration has also vetoed ? Security Council draft resolutions on settlements.

Meanwhile, the entire international community, including the Russian Federation, the members of the European Union, and the members of the Non-Aligned Movement unanimously maintains that the Israeli settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace.

Conclusion:    The Israeli settlement system is illegal under international law. It violates United Nations General Assembly and Security Council resolutions and any activities in this regard also violate the Palestinian-Israeli agreements and endanger the peace process. Such activity must be brought to an end, pending negotiations, which must lead to the dismantlement of the settlement system and proper redress for the Palestinian people.