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Debate: Israeli settlements

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Are settlements justified? Is expansion defensible?

Background and context

Israeli settlements are communities inhabited by Israelis in territory that was captured during the 1967 Six-Day War. Such settlements currently exist in the West Bank, which is partially under Israeli military administration[1] and partially under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, and in the Golan Heights, which are under Israeli civilian administration.

International bodies, including the United Nations Security Council, the International Court of Justice, the European Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and some legal scholars have characterized the settlements as a violation of international law. Israel, the Anti-Defamation League, and other legal scholars disagree with this assessment.

Many US administrations have called on Israel to halt its settlements, and have even called them illegal. In 2009, the Obama administration also called on Israel to halt its settlement construction. Yet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected these calls. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, for example, was quoted in a May 31st, 2009 article as having said: "I want to make it clear that the current Israeli government will not accept in any way the freezing of legal settlement activity in Judea and Samaria [West Bank.]"[1]

See Israeli settlement for more background.


Peace process: Do Israeli settlements help or hamper the peace process?


  • Israeli settlements do not impede creation of Palestine Elliott Abrams. "The Settlement Freeze Fallacy". The Washington Post. April 8, 2009: "Is current and recent settlement construction creating insurmountable barriers to peace? A simple test shows that it is not. Ten years ago, in the Camp David talks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat approximately 94 percent of the West Bank, with a land swap to make up half of the 6 percent Israel would keep. According to news reports, just three months ago, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered 93 percent, with a one-to-one land swap. In the end, under the January 2009 offer, Palestinians would have received an area equal to 98 to 98.5 percent of the West Bank (depending on which press report you read), while 10 years ago they were offered 97 percent. Ten years of settlement activity would have resulted in a larger area for the Palestinian state."


  • Israeli settlements impede creation of Palestinian state Former US president Bill Clinton: "The Israeli people also must understand that . . . the settlement enterprise and building bypass roads in the heart of what they already know will one day be part of a Palestinian state is inconsistent with the Oslo commitment that both sides negotiate a compromise."[2]
  • Israeli settlements taint negotiations and peace process Condoleezza Rice said in a November 7th, 2008 visit to the West Bank: "Settlement activity, both actions and announcements, is damaging for the atmosphere of negotiations. And the party's actions should be encouraging confidence, not undermining it. And no party should take steps that could prejudice the outcome of negotiations."[3]
  • General statements against Israeli settlements UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokeswoman Michel Montas: "The secretary-general calls on the government of Israel to halt settlement expansion and reiterates that the fulfillment of Road Map obligations by both parties is an important measure underpinning the political process between them."[4]

International law: Are settlements lawful under international law?


  • Israeli settlements may be unfortunate, but are not illegal. It is one thing to argue that settlements are unfortunate, and even that they make a peace settlement more difficult, but it is entirely another to argue that they are illegal. Many seem to confuse these ideas. They are entirely different and must not be confused. Any international legal case against Israel must solely focus on the relationship of Israel's actions to the strict letter of the law, such as the Geneva conventions.
  • Israeli-only roads were only built to protect against attack. David Meir-Levi. "Occupation and settlement: the myth and reality". Front Line Magazine. June 24, 2005: "It is also important to note that the so-called 'apartheid roads' did not exist prior to Arafat's 1994 ascent to power, nor are they apartheid. During the decades from 1967 on, Israelis and Arabs used the same roads, many of which ran as main streets through the towns and villages of the West Bank, bringing in millions of tourist dollars to hitherto impoverished small-town Arab merchants. Only after Arafat began his terror war, and Israelis driving through Arab towns found themselves in mortal danger, did Israel build the 'Israelis only' (not 'Jews only') roads. Rather than take punitive measures against Arab offenders who murdered or injured Israeli motorists (Jewish, Christian, and Moslem), the government decided instead to create this by-pass system so that Israelis could reach WBGS destinations without exposing themselves to terrorist attacks."


Secretary of State Cyrus Vance before House Ctee. on Foreign Affairs, March 21, 1980: "U.S. Policy toward the establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is unequivocal and has long been a matter of public record. We consider it to be contrary to international law and an impediment to the successful conclusion of the Middle East peace process…Article 49, paragraph 6, of the Fourth Geneva Convention is, in my judgment, and has been in judgment of each of the legal advisors of the State Department for many, many years, to be. . .that [settlements] are illegal and that [the Convention] applies to the territories.”[5]
  • Israeli-only roads to settlements are unlawful. Israel has built Israeli-only roads to its settlements. This institutionalization of discriminatory policies is unlawful, or at least wrong in a modern democratic society.

Rights: Are Israeli settlements consistent with Israeli and Palestinian rights?


  • Jews have historical right to return to West Bank Michael Freund. "Israel Has Every Right to Expand Settlements". The Chicago Sun-Times. May 15, 2002: "It was 35 years ago this month that Israel prevailed in the 1967 war, returning to places such as Hebron and Shilo. For two thousand uninterrupted years, Jews had lived in the ancient Jewish quarter of Hebron, near the Tomb of the Patriarchs where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are buried. Only in 1929, when local Arabs massacred them, was the Jewish community forced to flee the city. What could be more historically just than to rebuild the Jewish presence there? [...] Jews have a moral, legal, historical and Biblical right to settle the territories. Israel's settlements matter, then, because they are at the forefront of righting a historical wrong, one in which Jews were previously barred from living in their ancestral homeland due to Arab rejectionism and hatred."
  • Jews (like any race) have right to live in Palestinian territory. Michael Freund. "Israel Has Every Right to Expand Settlements". The Chicago Sun-Times. May 15, 2002: "Indeed, there is something very troubling about the fact that a US Secretary of State would object to the erection of a house based on the religious or ethnic identity of its owner. In the olden days, we had a word for such views - it was called racism. And segregation. [...] To deny people the right to live in a certain area because they are Jews is no different from denying African-Americans or Hispanics or any other ethnic group the right to live where they please. And to suggest that the exercise of that right is somehow an "obstacle to peace" and must be halted is to capitulate to the haters and allow them to dictate who may live where. We can not allow that to happen."


  • Settlements undercuts Palestinian right to control their land. Stephanie Kuory. "Israeli Settlements Illegal and Getting Worse". The Middle East Research and Information Project. September 24, 2005: "While expanding settlements Israel simultaneously contains Palestinian development. It unlawfully confiscates property, denies Palestinians the right to register their land and restricts Palestinian growth to limited areas, thereby reserving available land for settlement expansion. In order to ensure Israeli citizens have access to their settlements, Palestinians face restrictions on movement, including 600 physical barriers on West Bank roads, and endure long waits at checkpoints."
  • Israeli monopoly on force ensures settlements are enforced unlawfully. Stephanie Kuory. "Israeli Settlements Illegal and Getting Worse". The Middle East Research and Information Project. September 24, 2005: "Settlements are constructed under Israeli military or private security protection. Israel's Ministry of Defense provides weapons to settlers, which are then used by militants to harass Palestinians into vacating their land. Reports on settler violence by B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, document that settlers fear little or no retribution from Israeli law enforcement because of a history of superficial investigations -- only 8 percent of Palestinian complaints are probed -- and light sentencing or pardons for the few settlers ever convicted. The same reports note that Israeli military and police often do not intervene to prevent attacks although they are present at the time."

Natural expansion: Is the "natural expansion" of settlements justified?


  • Israeli settlements should be able to expand "naturally". The "natural expansion" of Israeli settlements is important to allow. This is a situation in which population growth as well as modest immigration into settlements expands a settlement, modestly. It is instructive to consider what it would mean to "freeze" such "natural expansion". It would almost necessarily mean placing limits on the number of offspring couples could have as well as the number of jews that can immigrate into a settlement. This is practically infeasible. And, for this reason, the "natural expansion" of Israeli settlements should be allowed.

Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, said on May 24th that there won't be new settlements, but new building in existing ones: "There will be no new settlements and no new outposts, but if in one or another settlement, 14 more children are born, we will open a new child-care facility for them."[6]


  • Israel encourages settlements; they are not growing "naturally". "Land Grab: Israel's Settlement Policy in the West Bank". The Israeli information Center for Human Rights. May 2002: "The Israeli governments have implemented a consistent and systematic policy intended to encourage Jewish citizens to migrate to the West Bank. One of the tools used to this end is to grant financial benefits and incentives to citizens - both directly and through the Jewish local authorities. The purpose of this support is to raise the standard of living of these citizens and to encourage migration to the West Bank." It is difficult, therefore, for Israelis to say that the "natural expansion" of settlements is justified and should remain into the future. There is nothing "natural" about the growth of Israeli settlements; it has been directly encouraged by the state. All future requests to allow the "natural growth" of such settlements should, therefore, be met with significant skepticism and doubt.

Pro/con sources



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