By David Meir-Levin, an American-born Israeli currently living in Palo Alto,
California. He taught Archaeology and Near Eastern History at the Hebrew
University in Jerusalem and at the University of Tel Aviv during the 60s and
70s. He has a weekly radio show, “Mid-East Media Watch” at KZSU Stanford
and is the director of the Israel Peace Initiative(IPI), a grass-roots not-for-profit
organization in the San Francisco Bay area working to educate the American
public and its leaders in to the history of the Arab-Israel conflict and realistic
options for resolution.
August 30, 2003.
One of the most prominent issues in the Israel-Arab conflict is Israeli
settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. So it is worthwhile to explore the
issue of settlements in some detail.
There are five types of settlements: A. Settlements of Jews returning to sites
occupied prior to 1948 (Hebron, Gush Etzion, Jewish Quarter, inter alia) B.
Nahal settlements for military/security purposes C. Expanding suburbs of Israeli
cities (Gilo & other Jerusalem suburbs, settlements east of Kfar Sava and
Petach Tikvah) D. Settlements unrelated to the previous three types E. Rogue
The establishment of settlements in the West Bank began shortly after the Six
Day War in Hebron, followed by the reconstructed Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem
(Type A). Nahal sites were soon established along what the IDF felt were
crucial corridors of defense, like the Jordan River, near the Green Line
(pre-1967 border), and near the Gaza Strip (Type B).
Unoccupied areas around Jerusalem and to the east of Kfar Saba were used as
sites for major building projects that created low cost housing for the expanding
population of the Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv areas (Type C). Over time, religious
and right-wing political pressure supported the creation of settlements
elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Under former prime ministers
Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, these settlements (Type D) proliferated.
Type E settlements were set up by break-away settlement occupants, often
contrary to IDF and/or government instructions, sometimes on Palestinian lands
illegally taken. Some have been forcibly dismantled.
Arab propaganda has repeatedly branded all types of settlements as “illegal” in
accordance with the 4th Geneva Convention. However, a look at international
law shows that the opposite is the truth.
The prohibition of exiling conquered populations and settling populations from
the conqueror’s territory in conquered territories pertains to territory conquered
in an offensive war. Regarding territory conquered in a defensive action, the
Charter of the League of Nations (the same one which gave Britain the right to
establish a Mandatory Government over Palestine) indicates that the disposition
of such territory will be part of the peace treaty between the warring parties. In
the absence of such a treaty, the disposition of these territories remains in
Such territories are referred to as “disputed territories,” not “occupied
territories.” Their continued occupation by the defensive party is legal. Since
the wars in 1948 and 1967 were defensive wars, and the defeated Arab states
were unwilling to enter into peace negotiations, Israel’s occupation of territories
beyond the 1947 partition boundaries and 1949 armistice lines is completely
International law is also clear that populations that had been dispossessed from
their ancestral homes by an offensive action, have the right to re-settle their
homes when a successful defensive action re-captures the land from which
they were driven out. Thus the return of Jews to Hebron, Gush Etzion and the
Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem is legal under international law.
It is also legal for the defensive party maintaining occupation in the absence of
a peace treaty to take necessary measures to maintain security. Thus Nahal
settlements are legal.
Moreover, UN Resolution 242 makes it clear that the purpose of the resolution
was to create a just and lasting peace, with guarantees for the territorial
inviolability and political independence of EVERY state in the area.
According to Eugene Rostow, one of the drafters of 242, the plain
meaning of the resolution is that Israel’s administration of the West Bank and
Gaza Strip is completely legal until a just and lasting peace is achieved.
Such administration, in the absence of a treaty, and in the face of
continued hostility, can include the development of unoccupied segments for
housing a growing population. Such activity is not the same as transporting
population to the territory for resettlement. So Type C settlements are also
Type D is more difficult. Nothing in the Geneva Convention prohibits voluntary
development of the disputed territories. What is prohibited is forced
deportations and organized displacement of original populace by a forced
settlement of the conquering population.
Since the population of West Bank Arabs almost tripled under Israeli
control, it can hardly be argued that the Israeli settlements have forced a
displacement of original populace.
Moreover, since the West Bank and Gaza were never legally part of any
sovereign nation (they were part of the British Mandatory Palestine till 1947,
were intended to be part of a Palestinian State that never came in to being, and
ended up being occupied forcibly by Egypt and Jordan in 1948 in stark and
defiant violation of the UN partition plan and in violation of international law),
Israel’s occupation of these territories after the Six Day War does not violate
the legal claims of any nation.
However, since some Palestinian land was taken by government fiat, and
it could rationally be argued that either by complicity or by design the Israeli
government sponsored these settlements, it seems fair to say that Type D
settlements may be in a gray area. Type E settlements seem to be illegal.
The impact of Israeli settlements of types A-D has been almost exactly the
opposite of what the Arab propaganda claims.
It is important to note that from 1967 to 1992, the population and
economy of the West Bank grew substantially. The standard of living of the
Palestinians, as well as the average per capita income increased. This was in
part due to the Israeli “Marshall Plan,” which expanded the infrastructure,
modernized the supplies of water, electricity, and sewerage, and made 20th
century medical care available.
It was also due in part to the partial integration of the Palestinian
working populace into the Israeli economy by the employment of hundreds of
thousands of Palestinians in a wide variety of Israeli business and agricultural
endeavors. The growth of tourism throughout the West Bank was a further
boost to the area’s economy.
It is only since 1993, when the occupation ended and 96% of
Palestinians living in Israel came under the autonomous and independent control
of the PA that the economy has been crippled and the lives of the Palestinians
wrecked by the PA despotic and terrorist rule.
Rather than displacing Palestinians, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank
stimulated substantial growth and improvement in their lives. The approximately
1,000,000 Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 grew to a bit
more than 3,000,000 in 1994.
It has been often noted that when an Israeli settlement of any of the four
types was erected, areas around it that were hitherto uninhabited became sites
for Palestinian shops selling agricultural goods and cottage industry wares to
the Israelis. Later, Palestinian houses followed the shops.
Later still, the PLO succeeded in creating excellent anti-Israel photo-ops
from this process. The PLO paid Palestinians to build homes abutting the
settlement. The photo-op was the image of a settlement encroaching upon the
Palestinian home. When the Israeli government tried to intervene, the photo-op
was the Israeli government destroying a Palestinian home.
Arab propaganda argues that the settlements are an obstacle to peace.
- From 1949-1967 there were no settlements in the West Bank or Gaza
Strip. Nor was there peace. Arab belligerence was unrelated to West Bank and
Gaza settlements. The settlements to which the Arabs objected at that time
were Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hadera, Afula, etc.
- In June, 1967, immediately after the Six Day War, and before there were
any Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel proposed its
dramatic peace initiative. This initiative was rejected by all Arab states, and by
the PLO and el-Fatah. The obstacle to peace was the very existence of Israel,
not settlements in the West Bank.
- In 1977, as part of the accord with Egypt, Israeli settlements in Sinai
were evacuated. In the context of a peace treaty, settlements are negotiable,
can be, and were, dismantled.
- In 1978, as part of the accord with Egypt, Israel froze settlements for
three months, in order to encourage entry of Jordan and the PLO into the
Egypt-Israel peace process. Both refused. The freezing of settlements did not
stimulate peaceful interaction.
- In 1994, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, while settlements in
the West Bank and Gaza Strip were growing in size and number. The existence
of the settlements in no way impaired the peace process with Jordan.
- The accords discussed at Madrid, Wye, Oslo and Taba all include the
acknowledgement that settlements will be dismantled in the context of a peace
agreement. Those accords were discussed while settlements were expanding.
They did not impede negotiation then.
- Currently, some 200,000 Jews live in a total of 144 communities
scattered through the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 80% of these could be
brought within Israel’s pre-67 borders with only very minor re-arranging of
“Green Line” boundaries.
- Part of former prime minister Ehud Barak’s offer to Palestinian Authority
Chairman Yasser Arafat in 2000 was the exchange of land such that the
Palestinians would be compensated for the small number of settlements that
would not be dismantled.
Bottom line: It is the unwillingness of the Arabs to negotiate, not the presence
of settlements, that stalls the peace process and makes compromise impossible.
Israel’s detractors assert that Israel violated the Oslo Accords by building
However, the Oslo Accords say that settlement-related issues will be
discussed during final stage negotiations. A moratorium on settlements would
be one of 16 “confidence building” measures that Israel and the PA would
The provision about not changing the “status” of the territories refers to
the agreement that neither side would unilaterally annex the areas (or declare
them an independent state). In the presence of glaring, overt, and provocative
violations of every one of the Oslo Accords by the PA almost immediately after
its signing, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government felt no
need to maintain the tacit informal agreement. Since the PA was not building
confidence, Israel saw no reason to compromise its security.
While Israel has built a total of 144 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza,
more than 260 new Palestinian settlements have been constructed. These
Palestinian settlements are no less a change of status of the territories than are
the Israeli ones.
Critics suggest that Israel would achieve the peace it craves if it unilaterally
pulled out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and dismantled the settlements.
- Part of the intent in building settlements was to create “bargaining chips”
for future negotiations. That is clearly what Netanyahu and Barak had in mind.
That is what Begin did when he allowed Yamit et al, with its more than 7000
inhabitants, to be created in Sinai, only to be torn down as part of Israel’s
concessions to Egypt with the return of Sinai.
- The security needs that prompted Nahal settlements still exist, especially
in light of the surge of terror activities sponsored openly by Hamas and Islamic
Jihad. The maintaining of these settlements permits greater freedom of action
for the IDF in pursuit of terrorist operatives.
- The definition of what is a “settlement” is important. This can be handled
ONLY within the context of a negotiated treaty where such terms are defined to
the satisfaction of both sides. Gilo, for example, is a suburb of Jerusalem for
Israel. But for the PA and most world media, it is a settlement.
- Netanyahu abandoned any thought of a settlement freeze after Oslo
because the PA made clear its intent to disregard Oslo and pursue a policy of
preparation for war. It is believed by some that part of his purpose in creating
more settlements was to send Arafat a clear signal: ‘If you keep doing your
anti-Oslo stuff, the area that you are likely to end up with as a Palestinian state
is going to get smaller and smaller’.
It didn’t work, even though a number of Palestinian intellectuals and
political leaders (most notably, Elyas Freij, mayor of Bethlehem, quoted in the
Washington Post in 1991) publicly advocated negotiation because the growth
of Israeli settlements in the West Bank made it clear that “time is on Israel’s
- Sharon and Netanyahu both indicated that a unilateral withdrawal from
settlements is a concession to terror. They refuse to reward terror. No
concessions until the violence stops.
Concessions about the settlements can be made in the context of negotiations,
which can begin after the violence stops. The question of settlements is a
matter for final status negotiations. The simple fact is that no sovereign state
would ever be expected to do otherwise.