The Israeli Settlement System in the Occupied Palestinian Territory

The Israeli settlement system, with its various dimensions, is a distinctive combination of classic colonialism waged on the basis of apartheid-like arrangements

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 constituting 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 Allon plan, focusing on the Jerusalem area, the Jordan Valley and the mountain range overlooking the Valley. In the mid-1970s, and particularly under the Likud government, the pattern began to change, especially with regard to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Settlement activities intensified and spread and appeared to aim at ensuring the Israeli presence throughout the occupied territories and preventing the implementation of Palestinian national 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 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 330,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, 180,000 of which live within the illegally extended municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem. These settlers live in 175 settlements: 9 in East 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. In addition, 60% of the settlers are on the Israeli public payroll. 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 present Israeli government insists on expanding the existing settlements and does not exclude the possibility of building new ones. The government also refuses to limit settlement activities within the extended municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. Since the present government has come into office, it has approved the construction of 9,256 housing units in settlements. With regard to international law, successive Israeli governments have maintained that the Fourth Geneva Convention is not applicable, but that they would apply its humanitarian provisions. The government also has accepted the Hague Regulations (although many aspects of the settlement system grossly violate those regulations).

The positions of successive U.S. administrations have varied but a common denominator has been 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 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."

The entire international community, including the Russian Federation and the members of the European Union, 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.