Explainer: What are Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories?

AFP , Ahram Online , Wednesday 15 Feb 2023

Western governments said this week they were "deeply troubled" by the Israeli government's decision to give retroactive permission to nine settlements in the occupied West Bank and build new homes.

File Photo: Armed Israeli settlers in the West Bank. AFP


The opposition voiced by the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States has drawn attention to Israel's settlement policy. Here are answers to some key questions:

What are settlements?

Settlements are Jewish-only villages, towns, and even cities built on territory Israel seized during the Six-Day War of 1967.

Some 475,000 Israeli settlers currently live in the occupied West Bank among 2.9 million Palestinians.

The settlers enjoy a European-standard-of-living in settlements that are connected by a network of Jewish only highways.

Meanwhile, Palestinian villages and towns are deprived of any meaningful contiguity due to an Apartheid-style separation wall that was built by Israel two decades ago.

A further 230,000 Israelis live in annexed east Jerusalem, along with at least 360,000 Palestinians who want to make the sector the capital of their future state.

Israel also seized the Gaza Strip as well as part of Syria's Golan Heights and established settlements in both. It evacuated the Gaza settlements in 2005.

What is their legal status?

In the 1970s, Israel established a network of settlements across the West Bank, particularly in areas deemed strategic.

The Oslo accords of the 1990s divided the territory into Israeli- and Palestinian-administered zones meant to lay the ground for a future Palestinian state, but Israel continued to build and expand its settlements.

The United Nations and most of the international community see all Israeli settlements as illegal.

Israel differentiates between those it has approved and those it has not, although it is not the first time that it has authorized wildcat outposts retroactively.

Israel's security cabinet announced on Sunday that it would legalize nine outposts, some of which have existed for decades.

They are dotted across the West Bank, including sites in the South Hebron Hills, the Jordan Valley, and near the Palestinian city of Nablus in the north.

Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement organization, slammed the government's approach as "annexation on steroids".

The cabinet also announced plans to approve the construction of new homes in existing settlements, without giving precise figures or locations.

Who are the settlers?

Many Israelis moved to the settlements in search of affordable housing, backed by billions of dollars in state funding in recent decades.

The government encouraged them to move to cities such as Ariel, Maale Adumim, and the ultra-Orthodox settlements of Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit.

There are also many national-religious hardliners who identify the southern and northern West Bank with the "biblical lands of Judaea and Samaria" and see living there as fulfilling "a divine promise."

The heavily-armed settlers terrorize Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem on a daily basis.

How do Palestinians see settlements?

Palestinians view Israeli settlements as a war crime and a major obstacle to peace.

Palestinian activists from Youth Against Settlements set up a Palestinian flag overlooking the Israeli settlement of Tel Rumeida, the Ibrahimi Mosque (C), or the Tomb of the Patriarch, and the old city of the West Bank town of Hebron. AFP

The Palestinians want Israel to withdraw from all land it occupied in the Six-Day War and to dismantle all Jewish settlements, although they have accepted the principle of minor land swaps of equal size and value.

Israel rules out a full return to pre-1967 borders but has in the past expressed a willingness to pull out of some parts of the West Bank while annexing its largest settlement blocs.

However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month renewed his pledge to "strengthen settlements" and has expressed no interest in reviving peace talks.

‘Western governments troubled’

Foreign ministers of Britain, the US, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Norway, Luxemburg, Denmark, and Finland have all issued statements condemning Israel's legalization of settlement outposts and the construction of new settlements in the occupied West Bank, warning that such a policy could exacerbate tensions on the ground.

The foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States issued a joint statement on Sunday, expressing concern about Israel's plans.

“We are deeply troubled by the Israeli government’s announcement that it is advancing nearly 10,000 settlement units and intends to begin a process to normalize nine outposts that were previously deemed illegal under Israeli law.  We strongly oppose these unilateral actions which will only serve to exacerbate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and undermine efforts to achieve a negotiated two-state solution.”


Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly stated that Ottawa is also strongly opposed to settlement expansion and added that "such unilateral actions jeopardize efforts to achieve comprehensive, just and lasting peace."


“‘I condemn Israel’s decision to legalize nine settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank. I also strongly object to the plans to build thousands of new housing units within established settlements. The Israeli settlement policy on occupied land is in violation of international law and must be stopped,” said Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Anniken Huitfeldt.

“I am deeply concerned about the scale of human suffering. People are living in a state of fear due to frequent attacks and loss of life. It is important that the Israeli authorities take steps to avoid further escalation and revoke these decisions, which undermine the prospects of a two-state solution and will inevitably lead to more conflict. It is essential that the Israeli Government works proactively to ease tensions before the situation spirals out of control. Palestinian leaders, too, must do their part to calm the situation,” Foreign Minister Huitfeldt added.


In a tweet, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn stated that he agrees with the joint statement issued by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy opposing Israel's settlement policy, which will only exacerbate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and undermine efforts to achieve a negotiated peace settlement and the two-state solution.


Danish Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen also tweeted: “Denmark shares the deep concern over Israel’s latest settlement announcement which we strongly oppose. Risks to worsen tensions and clearly undermines efforts towards a two-state solution.”


Finland's Foreign Ministry said in a tweet, “We reject the Israeli government decisions to authorize illegal settler outposts and build further housing in the West Bank. These decisions further exacerbate the tense situation. Settlements are illegal under international humanitarian law. Changes to 1967 borders are unlawful unless agreed by both parties.”

*This story was edited by Ahram Online

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