Recent announcements by the Israeli government of the expansion of West Bank settlements, made in the period since Donald Trump became US President, have put settlements back in the spotlight. The announcements come just weeks after the UN Security Council Resolution declared that settlements had “no legal validity.”
What are settlements?
Settlements are Israeli cities, towns and villages in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. (We will deal with East Jerusalem a bit later.) They tend to be gated communities with armed guards at the entrances. Why are they settlements and not simply Israeli residential areas? Because Israel is widely considered to be an occupying force in the territories. It is land that Palestinians, along with the international community, view as territory for a future Palestinian state.
To date, the US State Department under Trump has made no comment following recent announcements by Israel of new settlement housing. Under previous administrations, the State Department would routinely issue sharp criticism of any plans to expand settlements, and demand a freeze on construction.
It is also striking that the US State Department under Trump has made no comment following recent announcements by Israel of new settlement housing. Under previous administrations, the State Department would routinely issue sharp criticism of any plans to expand settlements, and demand a freeze on construction.
What is the legal status of settlements?
The settlements are illegal under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention, which concerns civilian populations during a time of war, states in Article 49 that, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
United Nations Security Council resolution 2334, which the United States did not veto, and was passed in December 2016, angering Israel, reaffirms this position. It states that settlements have “no legal validity” and constitute “a flagrant violation under international law.” The resolution references previous Security Council resolutions 242, 338, 446, 452, 465, 476, 478, 1397, 1515, and 1850. Of these, 465, 476, and 478 established that settlements have “no legal validity” in 1980.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) currently has a preliminary examination underway that is looking into Israeli actions, including settlements, in the occupied territories since Jun 13, 2014. The examination, which is meant to determine whether there is enough evidence to begin an official investigation, was launched on January 16, 2015.
Israel, along with a few legal analysts, disputes that settlements are illegal. There are three primary reasons they use. Some cite religious reasons, claiming religious scripture gives Jews a right to build anywhere in Israel and the West Bank. Others use historical reasons, saying Jews have lived in the region for thousands of years, and it remains their land.
Some others use legal reasons. In 2012, the Israeli government, under the direction of Prime Minister Netanyahu, published the Levy Commission Report, which summarized this legal position. The report rejected the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the West Bank, arguing that the West Bank was never a legitimate part of any Arab state. “Consequently, those conventions dealing with the administration of occupied territory and an occupied populations [sic] are not applicable to Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria,” the report read.
This is not a position that any country or international forum has accepted.
What about East Jerusalem? And what is East Jerusalem anyway?
From 1948 to 1967, Jerusalem was divided by the Green Line, which is the cease-fire line of 1948 between Israel and Jordan. Although the city is now under Israeli governance, the distinction remains.
Under international law, settlements in East Jerusalem are no different than settlements in the West Bank. So why consider them separately?
Because Jerusalem has always held a special place in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary Kerry singled out Jerusalem as one of the most sensitive and complex points, as did President Bill Clinton when he offered his ideas for peace in 2000. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as the capital of their state.
Unlike the West Bank, Israel annexed East Jerusalem. In late-June of 1967, Israel expanded the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to include East Jerusalem, applying Israeli law to the entire city and declaring a unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. No country has ever recognized this annexation, and there are currently no embassies in Jerusalem. There are approximately 200,000 Israelis, which the international community considers to be settlers, and 300,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
Although the international community considers Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as settlements, Israel disputes this. To Israel, this is simply building in Israel’s capital, despite international objections.
Under the partition plan of 1947, Jerusalem was supposed to be an international city open for all religions. The entire vision of the partition plan never came to fruition. Jerusalem was even supposed to have its own international airport. There is an abandoned airfield in northern Jerusalem, established in 1920 under the British Mandate, that was intended as the city’s link to the world.
What about the Golan Heights?
The Golan Heights is also considered occupied territory, taken from Syria in the Six-Day War in 1967 as well. But the West Bank has become the focal point of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Golan has, to a large extent, fallen off the agenda.
Unlike the West Bank, Israel has applied Israeli law to the Golan, effectively annexing it. The international community does not recognize this annexation.
Israel has held onto the Golan Heights because of its strategic importance. The elevated terrain allows whoever controls it to see into both northern Israel and southern Syria. At 9,232 feet, Mt. Hermon is the highest mountain in the area. The Golan Heights has a small population of Israeli settlers, along with Druze, many of whom remain loyal to Syria.
Has Israel ever withdrawn from settlements?
Yes, Israel has withdrawn from settlements on a few different occasions. In 1982, Israel began withdrawing from settlements in Sinai as part of the 1979 peace deal with Egypt. In 1989, the withdrawal was completed, constituting a full Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.
In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from settlements in Gaza. At the same time, Israel also withdrew from some settlements in the northern West Bank.