The settlements are both more extensive and their existence more ominous than I had somehow grasped before visiting the West Bank. While driving along a road through a valley a not un-typical scene, is that of a Palestinian community close by, with settlements perched on hilltops towering over it. There are now half a million settlers, roughly 300,000 in the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem. It should be noted that the Likud Party, at present in government, in effect holds that the land between the Jordan and the sea is simply ‘Israel’ (often referred to as Eretz Israel)  and that Israelis have a right to settle anywhere.

The Fourth Geneva Convention on the ‘Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War’ (1949), Article 49 states: ‘The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.’ Yet, soon after their conquest of the West Bank in 1967 that is exactly what Israel commenced upon. They have not ceased since. Moreover all major political parties seem to agree on such a policy. Settlement building is thus the clearest indication that the Israelis have no intention of giving up the West Bank: deeds speak louder than words. In other words, land-grabbing is a higher priority than ‘peace’. Indeed it was during the Oslo years of the 1990s, when the Israelis were supposed to be moving towards a permanent peace with the Palestinians, that settlement-building really took off. If the Israeli signature means nothing - and the West connives with the Israelis who are directly contravening their signature - where are we?

Not only the constant expansion of settlements but the pattern of settlement building makes it crystal clear what Israel is about: land acquisition and the determination that a future viable Palestinian state should be impossible. The settlements are strategically placed, both in relation to controlling access to water and, in particular, there is a huge settlement area (Ma’ale Adumin and related settlements) on an East-West axis near Jerusalem, thus cutting across what would be the vital North-South axis of any future Palestinian state. Further, settlements (significantly) are commonly built on hilltops, emphasizing thus Israeli control over the Palestinians. In the late ’90s Sharon famously commented that the Israelis should ‘run and grab as many hilltops’ as they could, because ‘everything we take now will stay ours’.

The majority of settlers (85% it is reckoned) are so-called ‘economic settlers’, of no particular ideological stance, who reckon they can get a better life for the same money living in a settlement than in Israel proper. Settlements are heavily subsidised by the Israeli government: housing is cheaper, there are tax breaks for their children’s education - and the view from the hilltop is outstanding. A minority of settlers however are there for ideological reasons. They are more radical than the army - and more feared by the Palestinians. Many of the men carry weapons on their back at all times. The behaviour of such settlers toward the Palestinians may be vicious (see Hebron). Under normal circumstances an Israeli soldier is not allowed to lay his hands on a settler. Thus the army will stand by, sometimes while Palestinians cry out to them to intervene, while settlers attack Palestinians.

Some of the ‘crazies’ (as an Israeli of radical disposition called them in my hearing) will say of the Palestinians things like: ‘We will force them to their knees’. Jews of right-wing disposition see nothing wrong with ethnic cleansing: Joshua was told to clear the land of the Philistines (Josh.13.2). (The modern word ‘Palestinian’ is derived from ‘Philistine’.) Or - as I heard a Jew say on the BBC recently - do you mean to say that Jews cannot live in the promised land? Or - again on the BBC and even worse - we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this land. This man thought cruelty permissible in this cause. Settler violence has for some years been on the increase. Meanwhile 90% of complaints made by Palestinians against settlers since 2006 have been closed without indictment.

Foundation for Middle East Peace

An excellent place to obtain detailed information on settlements - facts, figures, maps and a coherent narrative of the history of settlement building - is the ‘settlement information’ section of the website of this Washington-based institute. See in particular:

- ‘Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories: A Settlement Primer’, which gives the background up to 1992.

- ‘Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories: A Guide’ (Settlement Report, Vol. 12, no. 7, March 2002), taking the story up to that date.

- ‘Barack Obama Loses the Battle for a Settlement Freeze’, cataloguing the fruitless attempts at negotiation and the crumbling of American policy in the autumn of 2010.

One may however be sceptical about the analysis on this site which, largely built on what one may think wishful thinking, seems to partake of the (surely fallacious) presupposition that Israelis put ‘peace’ before land-acquisition.

Israeli settlement on a hilltop in the West Bank; Palestinian housing, distinguishable by their water tanks, in foreground.

Settlement on formerly West Bank land near Ni’lin, now grabbed by the course of the wall.

(See Wall, box on Ni’lin)

Settlers in temporary accommodation perched above a Palestinian house in Hebron

A fridge these settlers chucked down on the Palestinian below when he was trying to clean his steps

See Further on this Site:

  1. -East Jerusalem

  2. -Bedouin

  3. -Solutions?

  4. -Palestinian Papers

Specialist Literature:

- Under Attack: Settler Violence against Palestinian Children in the Occupied Territory, Defence for Children International, Palestinian Section, Nov. 2008.

- ‘Israel’s Colonial Settlement Policy’, leaflet, Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

- B’Tselem on settlements.

  1. -B’tselem, ‘Land Grab’ (2002); summary and pdf of full report here.

  2. -On Ma’ale Adumin see Palestine Monitor ‘A Day in Ma’ale Adumin’.

  3. -‘Settlers attack West Bank mosque and burn holy Muslim books’, The Sunday Times, 11.12.2009.

  4. -‘Israeli plan to build a new Jerusalem gate condemned by Palestinian government’, The Telegraph, report 10 Oct. 2010.

The Recent History of the Settlement Issue

The ‘Road Map’, concluded in June 2003 under the watchful eye of George Bush, specifically spoke in Phase 1 (and thus as the major ‘concession’ on the Israeli side) of a ‘freeze in settlement expansion’. Before it was even concluded however, Ariel Sharon (Israeli Prime Minister) commented on the impracticability of this. The following year Bush, unhelpfully, gave Sharon a ‘Letter of Understanding’ in which he said that the US accepted that settlements were a ‘fact on the ground’ that would need to be taken into account in any future agreement (this in the face of the fact that they are clearly illegal under international law). At Annapolis in 2007 the Israelis and the PA agreed to ‘immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations’. Yet the Israelis simply continued, as they did in the Oslo years, to expand their settlements.

The Obama administration’s handling of the settlement issue has been catastrophic. The Palestinians have, since ever, made clear that settlement building is the major bar to a solution to the conflict. They believe Israeli preparedness to freeze settlement building during the course of negotiations a litmus test as to Israeli goodwill. Obama clearly knows this and in coming to office initially demanded (28 May 2009) that Israeli settlement building should cease. A partial freeze (which was so weak that it was no real freeze) was finally agreed upon in November. The ‘exceptions’ were that 3,000 housing units the foundations of which had supposedly been laid (apparently a great many foundations were rapidly laid before the freeze kicked in) together with public buildings should continue to be built and unlimited construction in East Jerusalem was to continue. The PA found this insufficient. Meanwhile Netanyahu assured both the settler leadership and his cabinet that, subsequent to the 10-month ban, settlement activity would increase at a pace faster than before - in the event this is precisely what has happened!

The Obama administration has simply been snubbed. Obama himself has been forced into an ignominious

Speaking in London on 1 December, former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights Richard Falk (himself an American Jew) commented of this offer of fighter jets (given the illegality of the settlements in any case) that Clinton’s action was akin to going up to an armed robber and saying ‘do you thinking you could just hold off doing this robbery for a few weeks; meanwhile I’ll provide you with some new shot guns’.

Hear Falk’s powerful speech.

situation, such that he must be the laughing stock of the right wing Israeli public. (See History and Background, 2010.) The Israelis were offered an extraordinary package by Hillary Clinton, almost begging them to return to the table for a mere two months; as though the distance between the Israeli position and that of the Palestinians could in any way be bridged in that time slot. Eitan Haber, former aide to Yitzhak Rabin remarked: ‘A prime minister to receive such a package of benefits from the Americans has yet to be born. The Jordan Valley for two months. There should be protests on the streets in support of this proposal. Unbelievable.’ (Yediot Aharanot, 7 October 2010, quoted by Foundation for Middle East Peace ‘Settlement Report’ Sept.-Oct. 2010.) Despite this, Netanyahu turned the offer down – and settlement building continued apace. He presumably thought that he would receive American support in any case.

Following the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace talks’ largely on account of the Israeli refusal to commit to a freeze in settlement-building, despite intense lobbying by the Obama Administration against their doing so, the PA turned to the UN. On 19 Feb. 2011 all 14 members of the UN Security Council bar the US voted for a Resolution declaring the settlements ‘illegal’ and calling for an immediate halt to settlement-building, the US vetoing the Resolution.

What it must feel like to be Palestinian in the face of settlements is unimaginable. Palestinians are powerless. While their houses are demolished, settlements are built. I heard of one case where the reason given to a Palestinian for refusal of a permit to build (see House Demolition) was that the land was on a slope. Are settlements not built on slopes? The final irony (see Bedouin) must be that, to keep his family alive, a Palestinian should have to work on a settlement building-site, thus sensing himself a traitor to his people.
Moreover it is not simply a question of house construction. There are attacks on mosques; in occupied East Jerusalem there is now a plan to breach the city’s walls to build a new gate to lead to a new underground car park to improve access to the Wailing Wall; and so forth.

The Israelis are simply taking over Palestinian territory. In thinking about this one should remember that the West Bank is a tiny country. That is to say, on the 22% of historic Palestine which was left to the Palestinians after 1948, they are now faced with: (i) a wall which is not built on the green line but

Israeli settler moves into East Jerusalem and hangs out a flag

grabs more land; (ii)settlements; (iii) settler-only roads, which cannot be crossed by Palestinians, dividing the land up into enclaves; (iv) the fact that the Jordan valley is used by Israel as a no-go military frontier zone with Jordan. In July 2010 B’Tselem, the Israeli Human Rights pressure group, announced that more than 42% of the West Bank has now been appropriated by Israel.

A vivid recollection from the time I headed the American Jewish Congress is a helicopter trip over the West Bank on which I was taken by Ariel Sharon. With large, worn maps in hand, he pointed out to me strategic locations of present and future settlements on east-west and north-south axes that, Sharon assured me, would rule out a future Palestinian state.

Henry Siegman, ‘Imposing Middle East Peace’ (25 Jan. 2010). Siegman is now an outstanding critic of the Israeli government.

The UN Security Council has determined that ‘… all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity and that Israel’s policy and practices of settling parts of its population and new immigrants in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention …’

UN Security Council Resolution 465 (1980).