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Israel and Its Settlements (Part 1)

Israel receives a lot of bad press for its network of settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights, areas that were controlled by Jordan and Syria respectively prior to the 1967 Six Day War.

Some 350,000 Jewish Israelis live in 121 settlements in the West Bank, with a further 20,000 residing in Golan Heights settlements. A further 300,000 live in East Jerusalem, that part of the city that was controlled by Jordan up until 1967. While many of the settlements are small villages or farming communities, some are large urban concentrations with up to 55,000 people. The settlements are growing communities, because of both natural population growth and new arrivals from other parts of Israel or overseas.

Opposition to the existence of the settlements from Muslim communities around the world is a given. Bitter criticism of the Israeli settlements is also heard on a continuing basis from the left in Western countries.

Criticism is usually expressed in legal or moral terms. Opponents of the settlements claim that they represent a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention: "the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."1 Moreover, the State of Israel is often accused of “stealing Palestinian land.”2

Israel’s settlements represent the culmination of a long process which is usually ignored by critics. From the time of the surge in Jewish immigration to Palestine in the late 19th century, Jewish communities were the target of hostility and attack by Arab communities. In the first eight years of Israel’s existence, some 500 Israelis were murdered by raiding fedayeen fighters crossing the border from neighbouring countries.

So when Israel responded to a massive build-up of Arab armies on its borders in June 1967 and won the Six Day War, capturing the Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Sinai Peninsula in the process, a strong element of its response to ongoing threats of belligerence from its defeated neighbors was to establish Jewish communities in the areas it had conquered to serve as a front line of defence against any future attack from its hostile neighbors. Today’s network of settlements is the result of the Israeli Government’s Allon Plan, conceived after the 1967 war.

Several points are important to consider in the context of today’s settlements. First, some settlements were established on the site of Jewish communities which had existed prior to the 1948 war of independence but had been evacuated in connection with the 1948 Armistice. Examples are Kfar Shiloah and Hebron, the latter of which had been home to a Jewish community since biblical times.

Second, Israel has long challenged the claims that the settlements are illegal and involve stealing Palestinian land. Such claims might apply to certain historic conquests and colonizations such as were carried out by Britain, France, and other European powers, the homes of most left wing and liberal critics of Israeli settlement policy. But unlike those countries, Israel did not expand its territory for commercial reasons but for reasons of defence, having faced existential threats since its very first day of existence.

Third, Israel has always tied discussion of the settlement controversy with the broader question of renunciation of hostility by its Arab neighbors. When Egypt signed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the 18 settlements in the Sinai Peninsula were evacuated within three years. When Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005, hoping for a response of reconciliation from Palestinians, it evacuated 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and 4 in the West Bank. The response it has received from the Hamas regime in Gaza since that evacuation has been a continuing barrage of rockets and terror strikes—1,123 rockets and mortars in 2006, 2427 in 2007, 3278 in 2008, and so forth on an annual basis—leading up to the July 2014 Israeli military attack on Hamas in Gaza.

Fourth, Israeli settlements in the West Bank provide significant employment opportunities for Palestinians, paying salaries considerably above those generally available among local Palestinian communities. Thousands of Palestinians take advantage of these opportunities.

Critics should also reflect on April 2010 comments regarding a proposed two-state solution by Israeli Minister Moshe Ya'alon, in which he argued that just as Arabs live in Israel, Jews should be free to live in Palestine: “If we are talking about coexistence and peace, why the [Palestinian] insistence that the territory they receive be ethnically cleansed of Jews?”3

Israel faces a challenging future in the face of ongoing belligerence from the Arab and broader Muslim world. This hostility is often expressed in eschatological terms that suggest Allah is supporting Muslims in an eternal struggle against the Jews. Israel could be a marvellous resource for the Middle East, modelling democratic values and practice, sharing its advanced technology and agricultural know-how. However, Israel cannot and should not review its settlements policy until such time as its neighbors are able to demonstrate conclusively that they have renounced past hostility and are ready to embrace a future of partnership and peaceful coexistence.

To read Part 2 of this series, click here.


“Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949,” International Committee of the Red Cross Website, http://www.icrc.org/ihl/WebART/380-600056 (accessed September 4, 2014).


Yossi Gruvitz, “Like Thieves in the Night: Stealing Palestinian Land,” +972 Magazine Website, October 7, 2013, http://972mag.com/like-thieves-in-the-night-stealing-palestinian-land/80098/ (accessed September 4, 2014).


Herb Keinon, “Ya’alon to Post: Jews Should Be Able to Stay in Palestinian Entity,” Jerusalem Post Website, April 16, 2010, http://www.jpost.com/Israel/No-need-to-remove-any-settlements (accessed September 4, 2014).