What should you know about the Israeli settlements?

A view of Amona Settlement in Samaria. (Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The Israeli settlements are one of the most contentious issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – that intermittent and precarious series of negotiations that began in the 1970s and continue, in theory, today.

President Barack Obama has condemned the Israeli government’s recent decision to establish new settlement outposts in the West Bank, and his administration is opposed to a proposed bill moving through Israel’s parliament that would retroactively legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land. This bill is an effort to save the homes of approximately 40 families in Amona, a settlement established without Israeli government approval and which Israel’s Supreme Court ordered must be evacuated and demolished by Dec. 25.

If the bill passes, it would also legalize another 2,000 – 3,000 homes that were built without government approval in the West Bank. Although the proposed legislation includes an offer of compensation or alternative land parcels to Palestinian landowners, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warned that if passed, the bill will likely be struck down by the Supreme Court for violating both Israeli and international law. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes the legislation, though his concern may stem primarily from a desire to see a transition of United States presidents before his government makes controversial policy changes, rather than from disapproval about the legalization of additional settlements.

Israel has authorized more than 100 settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and spends millions of dollars each year protecting, developing and subsidizing these locations, which are home to approximately 500,000 Jewish citizens. Many in the international community have criticized Israel for this, especially those in countries that believe that Israeli settlements are illegal. The U.S. takes a slightly softer stance; every administration since Ronald Reagan’s has designated the settlements as “a major obstacle to peace.” President-Elect Donald Trump’s administration may soften the tone even further, as one of his advisors recently indicated that Trump does not agree with the assessment that Israeli settlements impede the peace process.

Trump’s reasoning is not completely implausible. Long before Israeli settlements were established in the West Bank, Palestinian and other Arab leaders refused a 1937 British partition plan that would have created a large Arab state and a very small – likely indefensible – Jewish one. Although it was not to their advantage, the Jews accepted the deal. Ten years later, they also accepted the United Nation’s partition plan for the creation of two states; however, the Palestinians rejected that plan, as well. Thus, many have argued that a two-state solution proved unattainable before any settlements were established, and that the only real obstacle to peace has been Palestinian unwillingness to recognize and accept a Jewish State.

The history of Israeli settlements – and international dispute as to their legality – stretches back to June of 1967, when Israel defended itself against a coalition of Arab nations and won the Six-Day War, capturing the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank (also called Judea and Samaria) from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Israel’s first settlements were then established, to hold strategic positions in these newly acquired territories and to create stronger, more defensible borders.

In November 1967, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 242, urging the establishment of “a just and lasting peace” in the Middle East by calling for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” as well as“acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.”

Resolution 242 has proven to be controversial as much for what it does not say as for what it does. Opponents of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, ongoing military control of portions of the West Bank, and expanding settlements, claim that until Israel returns to pre-1967 borders, the country is in violation of the resolution. Proponents of Israel’s territorial acquisitions – including settlements in the West Bank – point out (as recorded in a recent Philos Project article) that Resolution 242 deliberately refrained from specifying the parameters or extent of Israel’s withdrawal. By opting to not call for a withdrawal of Israeli forces from all of the occupied territories, the resolution’s authors both acknowledged and intended that some of those lands would necessarily remain under Israeli sovereignty, expecting that new boundaries would be resolved in peace negotiations.

However, when Israel offered to return Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights to its Arab neighbors in exchange for recognition of the nation’s right to exist peacefully, as was also stipulated in Resolution 242, Arab leaders refused.

Israel has repeatedly proved itself willing to negotiate borders and exchange “land for peace,” while Palestinian leaders have not. In 1982, Egypt signed a peace treaty officially recognizing Israel, and in return, Israel removed all Jewish settlements in Sinai and returned that region to Egypt. Jordan and Israel began a series of secret talks following the Six-Day War, culminating in a 1994 peace treaty between the two countries.

According to the terms of that treaty, Israel returned occupied Jordanian territory and allowed Jordan to manage the Temple Mount and Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem. In 2000, at the historic Camp David talks, Israel offered to withdraw from 95 percent of the disputed territories – including removing isolated settlements and exchanging land near Gaza for the areas in the West Bank containing large Jewish settlement blocks. The proposal included the creation of a corridor connecting Gaza and the West Bank and concessions on East Jerusalem. Palestinian leaders refused that deal, as well as a similar one in 2008.

The ambiguity of Resolution 242’s stipulation on Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territories leaves the issue of Israel’s compliance and the legality of Jewish settlements abstruse. What appears more straightforward is that Israel is in breach of Rule 130 of the IV Geneva Convention, which declares that “states may not deport or transfer parts of their own civilian population into areas they occupy.” Without question, Israel is an occupant under international law. A simplistic – albeit unconvincing – rebuttal says that the IV Geneva Convention on deportation was a response to the forced transfer of Jews and other German citizens to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As this scenario is not comparable to Israeli settlements, the IV Geneva Convention does not apply.

A much more dynamic rationalization focuses on the disputed status of the territories and the fact that Israel gained control of them while acting in self-defense. No state had territorial sovereignty over the West Bank when the British Mandate ended in 1948. The Kingdom of Jordan annexed the land in 1950, but this was never legally recognized by the international community. Thus, when Israel acquired the area during the Six-Day War, the argument could be made that no other state entity possessed the land. Moreover, because the status of the disputed territories remains undefined, supporters argue that there is no legal basis for preventing settlements until a negotiated peace agreement is concluded with a would-be Palestinian state.

But if Israel’s settlements are not illegal per se, many still argue that they are problematic and impede peace. These growing neighborhoods, their encroachment on lands that Palestinians desire, and the military protection they require, perpetuate hostility and resentment among Palestinians and tarnish Israel’s image internationally. In a conflict that has defied resolution for decades, time has not favored the Palestinian people, for the settlements (not to mention Israel’s security wall) have also decisively succeeded in changing the facts on the ground.

The terms of any future two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority will have to include a land exchange for some of the largest, most entrenched settlement blocks in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. For Palestinian leaders who have historically been reluctant to make any concessions, Jewish settlements will require many compromises in the realization of a Palestinian state.

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, December 6, 2016, and reposted with permission.

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Joyclynn Potter is a high school teacher at Harvest Christian Academy in Baker City, Ore. Her goal as a teacher is to equip students with a solid, biblical worldview and a proactive civic awareness. Joyclynn is a prolific reader and a book reviewer for Bethany House Publishers. She has been published in The Journal of Religion. Joyclynn earned her MA (summa cum laude) in International Relations from Salve Regina University in 2007. She and her husband have three children and numerous foster children. Prior to starting a family, Joyclynn spent six years in overseas missions in Asia, Africa and Europe.