Settlements (Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories)

The first Israeli settlement in the Occupied Territories was installed on the Syrian Golan Heights in July 1967. There are 168 settlements today with a population estimated at around 390,000 people.

The number of settlements and their inhabitants are divided up as follows in the different occupied regions (these figures are from May 2001 but are continually increasing – here: figures from 2001):

  • Gaza Strip: 14 settlements/7000 settlers;
  • Golan Heights: 29 settlements/9000 settlers;
  • West Bank: 107 settlements/180,000 settlers;
  • East Jerusalem: 190,000 settlers, mainly in the urban belt created around the old city since 1967.

The two largest settlements are Maale Adumim (25,000 inhabitants) and Ariel (15,000 inhabitants), both considered by Israel as « Israeli cities » and situated in the West Bank. Maale adunim has been annexed to the municipal territory of Jerusalem.

Most Israelis go to live in the settlements for economic reasons (they benefit from many fiscal and financial advantages). An estimated 50.000 people make up the hard core of religious settlers.

There were two main phases in the creation of these settlements: the Labour phase and the Likud phase.

From 1968 to 1977, the Labour government focused its settlement programme (Allon plan) on regions with low Palestinian populations, on the creation of a Jewish belt around East Jerusalem, in the Jordan Valley and on the Golan Heights, with a view to a possible handing back of part of Palestinian territory to Jordan in case of negotiations. This policy was intensified in the last years of the Labour government (under the impulsion of Shimon Peres) and then further radicalised when the Likud came to power in 1977. Colonisation accelerated and aimed to prevent any « territorial compromise » through the installation of many settlements in densely populated Palestinian areas. This policy is still pursued today, particularly in the zone situated east of Jerusalem.

Between December 1987 – the date of the beginning of the Intifada – and December 1993, the total number of settlers increased by 136%, according to the leading Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz. This was due notably to the influx of immigrants from the former USSR but also apparently because of speculation on the compensation which might be granted by the government if certain settlements were dismantled.

In 1992, Ytzhak Rabin’s Labour government decided to suspend the geographic extension of Jewish settlements and to abolish its preferential status for the West Bank (this status was maintained for Golan, the Gaza Strip and the Jordan Valley). This did not stop further development (construction of houses, bypasses – which Palestinians are not allowed to use – to link existing settlements). During the negociation and implementation of the Oslo Agreements, ie between 1993 and 2000, the number of settlers therefore increased by about 57% (from 248,000 to 390,000 settlers) in the Palestinian territories. In the light of the negotiations which started in Oslo in September 1993 between the PLO and Israel (see « Oslo peace process »), there is evidence of a deliberate determination by Labour to perpetuate the demographic and territorial elements which will undoubtedly weigh in the balance during negotiations on a permanent status for the Palestinian territories.

In line with the ideology of the Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu decided, just after his election in May 1996, to lift the partial freeze on settlements and, in December, to re-establish the status of « national priority » for the West Bank settlements and to encourage their extension. If the Israeli Prime Minister’s plans had carried out to the full, it was estimated that the settler population could have reached 500,000 by the year 2000 in all the Occupied Territories.

The election of Mr. Ehud Barak as Prime Minister of Israel in April 1999 had made the Palestinians hope that this trend could be reversed. But the new Prime Minister had pledged only that new settlements would not be built, and so construction in the existing ones continued at the same rate.

One could definitely not speak of a real break in the settlement policy carried out by the Labour government after the Likud; but rather of slight ideological and strategic differences. The Labour party sees the existence of settlements first and foremost as a strategic and demographic security guarantee whereas the Likud sees it essentially as the natural achievement of the Zionist project. And although the Labour movement acknowledged the principle of the creation of a Palestinian entity with limited territorial sovereignty – unlike the Likud which only talks of administrative autonomy – both demonstrate a desire to develop the settlements and maintain a maximum of enclaves in Palestinian territory under Israeli sovereignty. As for the Palestinians, they consider that the pursuit of colonisation flies in the face of the Oslo Agreements because it modifies unilaterally the situation of the Palestinian territories, of which the permanent status still has to be negotiated.

Following the relaunching of the Peace Process and the signing of the « Wye 2 » agreement in Sharm El-Sheikh, on 5 September 1999, Mr. Barak won approval of the Israeli cabinet on a compromise concerning the fate of 42 « illegal » (unauthorized) settlements: 15 were to be dismanteled, 11 would be legalized while 16 others would be temporarily tolerated but further construction would be prohibited.

However the continuing development of the existing colonies had already hindered the negociations on the final status begun as planned on 8 November. With a crisis carrying on for more than three weeks with regards to the second redeployment scheduled in the Sharm Al-Sheikh Agreement, the Palestinians had stopped negociating on all subjects other than that of the settlements. Indeed, Mr. Barak’s administration had authorized in one year more new constructions in the settlements than Mr Netanyahu’s in an average year. And the comments made by the Labour administration emphasizing that new constructions were carried out solely on settlements which Israel intended to keep did not help either. The election of the Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, to the post of Prime Minister, brought to power one of the main architects (as Minister of Agriculture and Minister of the Infrastructure) of settlements in the Palestinian territories. Mr Sharon put forward a peace plan foreseeing the creation of a Palestinian state made up of 5 enclaves and covering 52% of the West Bank and 82% of the Gaza Strip.