With the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. In the immediate thereafter, the idea of expanding the Jewish presence to parts or all of those territories became the common denominator among the main Israeli political parties. The settlement system then began to take shape through the transfer of Israelis to the occupied territories and the building of housing and other infrastructure in specific locations as settlements to accommodate those Israelis. At the beginning of the settlement drive, the security dimension was emphasized by the then Israeli Labor government and settlements were first established in key security areas such as the Golan Heights. This developed into a pattern, which seemed to fulfill the Alon plan, focusing on the concentration of settlements in the Jerusalem area and the Jordan Valley.
In the mid-1970s, and particularly under the Likud government administrations, the pattern began to change. Settlement activities intensified and spread and appeared to aim at ensuring the Israeli presence throughout the occupied territories and preventing the implementation of Palestinian rights. 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 the law related to the expropriation of land to the direct confiscation of privately owned land. That was coupled with massive abuse and exploitation of natural resources, especially water resources. Various significant financial incentives were offered to encourage Israelis to move to the occupied territories, including rebates and low interest loans in addition to 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, especially with the increase of bypass roads, settlements became separate structures of life, differing greatly from the lifestyle of the Palestinian people, with a different quality of life, 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; separate structures 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 took place against the vehement opposition of the Palestinian people and the stance of the international community as well.
The institutionalized 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 occupuying 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 constitute customary international law, prohibit the destruction, seizure, confiscation and even expropriation 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, United Nations organs and agencies as well as by every country in the world. The Security Council, in X resolutions, reaffirmed the applicability of the Convention to the occupied territories, including Jerusalem. The Council has specifically dealt with the issue of settlements, establishing a Commission in this regard, and considers settlements to be illegal and an obstacle to peace. (Resolutions on changing of demographic character.) Further, 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 Decolonization and the Granting of Independence to Indigenous Peoples.
The Present Situation
There now exist 350,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, 200,000 of which live within the illegally extended municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem. These settlers live in 175 settlements: 9 in Jerusalem (extended municipal boundaries), 150 in the West Bank and 16 in the Gaza Strip (There are also 36 settlements in the Golan Heights). About 80% of these settlements consist of 500 settlers or less, and of the settlers in the West Bank, approximately 60% live in 14 urban settlements. Also, 60% of the settlers are on the Israeli public payroll. In total, the settlements occupy around 7% of the overall occupied Palestinian territory.
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 resolution 242 (1967). The parties also agreed to postpone negotiations on specific issues, including the settlements, until a second stage of negotiations to commence in May 1996. Settlement activities of any kind clearly violate those agreements.
Those 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 since new facts on the ground would only preempt or alter the outcome of expected negotiations and render the agreements between the parties useless. Also, additional settlement activities defy the basic logic of the peace process, the mutual recognition between the parties and the goal of achieving a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.
Positions of the Parties
The Palestinian side considers Israeli settlements to be illegal and an obstacle to peace and 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 considered.
The present Israeli government insists on expanding the existing settlements without excluding the possibility of building new ones. The government also refuses any limitation on settlement activities within the extended municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. Since the present government came into office, it has approved the construction of 9,256 housing units in settlements. Legally, successive Israeli governments have maintained that the Fourth Geneva Convention is not applicable, adding at some stages that they will de facto apply it, but it has accepted the Hague Regulations (although important aspects of the settlement system grossly violate those regulations).
The positions of successive U.S. administrations have varied but a common denominator seems to be the classification of settlements as an obstacle to peace. This position was recently reaffirmed by the present administration. The U.S. stated in its 1991 letter of assurances to the Palestinian side to the Madrid peace process that "the U.S. has opposed and will continue to oppose settlement activities in territories occupied since 1967, which remain an obstacle to peace.
The whole international community, including the Russian Federation and the members of the European Union, unanimously maintain that the Israeli settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace.
The Israeli settlement system is illegal under international law. It violates Security Council resolutions and any activities in this regard also violate the Palestinian-Israeli agreements. Such activity must be brought to an end, pending negotiations, which must lead to the dismantlement of the system and proper redress for the Palestinian people.