When Jews began resettling in parts of the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 Six-Day War, they also reestablished their legal right to settle anywhere in western Palestine – an entitlement unaltered by international law since 1922, and a right that is valid and protected by Article 80 of the United Nations Charter.
Jewish settlements are not illegal as some claim – not from a moral or historical standpoint, nor from a legal one.
Jews in Palestine are there to “… further development of the existing Jewish community” and they “should know that it is in Palestine as of right and not on sufferance.”
Winston Churchill, 1922.
“The Administration of Palestine … shall encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.” (emphasis added)
Mandate for Palestine, December, 1922.
Examination of the Oslo Accords and evaluation of the actual size and scope of the settlements demonstrate they do not constitute an obstacle to final status agreements.
Jewish settlements are located on public land that does not jeopardize the lives and property of Arabs and occupy only a small portion of the landmass of the West Bank. A balanced look at the settlers shows they are not the violent extremists they are portrayed to be.
Fifty percent of the West Bank is public land.57 This reflects the land system inherited from centuries of Ottoman rule when individual ownership was severely limited and one of the main land categories was meri – land belonging to the Emir. Indeed, figures cited in the British Survey of Palestine study prepared for the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1945-46 reported that under the Ottomans, at least 65% of the country was state land.58 The large percentage of public land Israel ‘inherited’ reflects Jordan’s continuation of this land tenure system up until 1967 and the stagnation that characterized Jordan’s control of the West Bank. Overall, during 19 years of Jordanian rule, little was done to develop the West Bank. When Israel gained control, for instance, only 56.7% of the inhabitants had running water, compared to 80.3% of their brethren living in Israel.59 A 1968 Tel Aviv University study60 that paired and compared adjacent Arab villages that had been separated by the 1949 Armistice line found stark disparities in development of educational skills and economic opportunities on the Jordanian and the Israeli sides of the Green Line.
The amount of public land also heavily reflects topography and human geography. Much of the landmass of the West Bank has been barren rock-strewn hillsides and deserts for centuries, after the fragile ecology collapsed under the pressure of nomadic tribes and civil disarray in the wake of the Arab conquest in the 7th century.61 According to the writings of the historian Josephus Flavius, the population of the Land of Israel at the beginning of the Second Temple period was three million inhabitants. In 1914 on the eve of the First World War (which further decimated local society – Jewish and Arab) there were approximately 500,000 Arabs in Western Palestine.62 The population had been denuded parallel to desertification of the land. This, together with heavy taxing of farmers by ruthless Muslim leaders, devastated large parts of the coastal plain and the foothills that had been permanently inhabited for thousands of years. Signs of abandoned terrace agriculture can still be seen on the landscape. These once-farmed foothills which encompass the western slope of the West Bank along the Green Line are where 80% of all Jewish settlers reside. In 1967 this was still largely uninhabited, denuded, and eroded public land abandoned due to the collapse of the agricultural system in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Ninety percent of all Jewish settlements were established on barren undeveloped land throughout the West Bank.
This is evident even in photos taken by anti-settlement advocacy groups such as Peace Now and B’tselem.63 Since 1980, all settlement activity has been on public land. The process of establishing that settlement land is not private land owned by Arabs is “an exhaustive investigation process” monitored by the Israel Supreme Court.64 West Bank Arab residents who feel wronged when their private land is acquired (with compensation) for public purposes (such as new roads, public services, military installations, etc.) have the right of appeal directly to the Supreme Court.65
Israel settlements occupy a minuscule part of the landmass of the West Bank.
Eighty percent of the settlers reside adjacent to the Green Line along Israel’s ‘narrow hips,’ and many others are in strategically sensitive areas.
The actual developed areas of Israeli settlements occupy less than 2% of the landmass of the West Bank.
Peace Now, which favors unilateral withdrawal and dismantling of Jewish communities in the West Bank, estimates the Jewish communities there take up only 1.36 percent of the land. The human rights organization B’tselem, which monitors Jewish building construction on the West Bank and reports its scope to parties abroad, also found the extent of Jewish settlement to be marginal. A B’tselem study published in 2002 found the percentage of developed areas of Jewish settlement on the West Bank comprises 1.7% of all land on the West Bank; if one includes non-developed municipal areas (almost all of which is unpopulated and zoned to meet expansion needs), 5.1% of the West Bank is ‘occupied’ by Jewish settlements.66 The other 94.9 percent is either land owned by local Arabs and registered in the Land Registry, IDF military installations, public lands administered by the government or undeveloped public land zoned to local councils.
Following the 1967 Six-Day War, the rise of Jewish settlements symbolized the restoration of a dimension of history often ignored by Arabs and unknown to most non-Israelis, which is that Jews had lived in the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem during Mandate times. That period ended only after they were killed or driven out in the aftermath of the 1948 war - when Jewish communities were obliterated. Between 1949 and 1967, Jordanian military personnel razed Jewish settlements, destroyed 58 synagogues, and used headstones from the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives to build roads.67 In the course of the 1948 War, the West Bank was rendered judenrein – ethnically cleansed of Jews – by Jordanian invaders.
A vibrant Jewish life in the land of Israel existed hundreds of years prior to the official establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
The mountainous areas of Judea and Samaria were the cradles of Jewish civilization – from Bethel, where Jacob fought with the angels, and Shilo, where the Ark of the Covenant resided, to Hebron, the city of the Patriarchs. The Old City in Jerusalem, Hebron in Judea, Safed and Tiberius in the Galilee, were four holy cities where the Jews were concentrated throughout the ages. In 1898, on the eve of the first wave of Zionist immigration, Edwin S. Wallace, Consul General of the United States, visited Palestine and Jerusalem and wrote:68
Of the eighty thousand Jews in Palestine, fully one-half are living within the walls, or in the twenty-three colonies just outside the walls, of Jerusalem.
Where the Jewish population [in Jerusalem] outnumbers all others, three to one [a full 75 percent], the Jew has few rights.
Although permitted to settle anywhere west of the Jordan River, Zionist settlements were concentrated first in the coastal area, the Galilee and the Negev, in Jerusalem and Hebron in Judea. Jewish settlement elsewhere was more sparse.
During the 1948 War of Independence, the Jewish inhabitants - the men, women and children - living in communities north of Jerusalem and in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, in the Etzion bloc between Hebron and Jerusalem and in the Jordan Rift Valley, were either evacuated to save their lives, killed as combatants while defending their homes, massacred after they surrendered or taken as prisoners of war and not allowed to return to their homes. 2,000 Jewish inhabitants of the Old City, who lived next to the holiest site in Judaism – the Western Wall of the Temple Mount - were an intolerable presence to the Arabs. Not one Jew was allowed to reside in or visit Jordanian territory, including the Old City, for 19 years.
After illegally annexing the West Bank in 1950, Jordan adopted a law in 1954 granting Jordanian citizenship to residents of the West Bank. The law covered those who had been subjects of the British Mandate and stipulated “any man will be a Jordanian subject … if he is not Jewish.”69 Jordan also prohibited Jordanians from selling land to Jews by penalty of death; the Palestinian Authority adopted a similar law in the 1990s.
Israel took pains to respect and maintain the legal status of both Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants with parallel administrative structures.
Israel respects the fact that the territories are contested; that is, the Green Line serves its prior administrative functions until the parties can agree to a new boundary. Inhabitants – Jews and Arabs – remain subject to separate administrative machinery and legal systems – Israelis to Israeli law, Palestinians to Jordanian law, until a compromise can be reached in final-status agreements. Israel has bent over backwards, granting de facto recognition of Jordan’s illegal annexation so as not to unilaterally apply Israel’s own legal system on Jewish residents and Palestinian inhabitants.
In any permanent settlement, large tracts of undeveloped public land would be transferred to Palestinian hands.
Israeli settlements – a very small portion of the West Bank, concentrated mostly in large blocs – are hardly an obstacle to peace.
Key Jewish settlement blocs exist in militarily strategic parts of the West Bank essential to Israel’s security. One of them is the Jewish settlement of Ofra, located on the highest point in the West Bank. There, the IDF set up an early warning monitoring station to protect Israel’s densely populated low-lying heartland from a surprise attack from the east. UN Resolutions 242 and 338 underscore that any withdrawal must provide for “secure borders.” Israeli settlements in strategic areas of the West Bank are not obstacles to peace, if peace is the Arab objective. Most Jewish settlement is adjacent to the Green Line where Israel, since 1949, enjoyed merely a 9-miles of ‘strategic depth,’ a situation that not only invited aggression in 1967, but also in 2000 when cities and towns along Israel’s ‘narrow hips’ took the brunt of the terror campaign launched by the Palestinian Authority, terrorism that since has been reduced due to the building of the anti-terrorist barrier. Clearly Israel has a good case for demanding these areas be solidified in any future peace agreement.70
Settlers as fanatical fundamentalists?
Israeli are often portrayed as loose cannons, lawless extremists who violently oppose any attempt by their own government to uproot them - even in exchange for peace. The reality is quite different.
To justify a one-sided separation whereby Jewish settlers should be sent back to Israel, the Arabs and their supporters portray ‘gun-toting settlers’ who terrorize innocent Palestinians as a counterweight to Palestinian terrorists who target Jewish civilians, suggesting settlers are the source of the violence as a whole.
Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza are often portrayed in the media by their adversaries as religious zealots who would use lethal force to stop the Israeli government from dismantling their homes. But that view is not supported by academic research, opinion polls or reality.
Polls of settlers taken in 1995, 1997, and 1999 jointly by the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University and by the Palestinian-run Department of Strategic Analysis at the Center for Policy Research Studies71 drew a profile of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza that defies the stereotype;
Thirty-one percent of the settlers are secular. Only 16 percent are ultra-Orthodox, with others religiously observant individuals identifying themselves as “modern” Orthodox (37 percent) to those who keep the tradition72 (16 percent). Only 27 percent settled on the West Bank for ideological or religious reasons; 46 percent came for economic reasons - like affordable housing.
Hoping that the war would lead to recognition and peace with its neighbors, Israel did not rush to settle the West Bank after the Six-Day War.
Extensive settlement activity began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, more than ten years after the 1967 Six-Day War.
The first steps toward Jewish settlement beyond the Green Line immediately after the 1967 war were modest. A small Jewish presence was established in Judea, when a kibbutz (Kfar Etzion) - whose defenders had been massacred by the Arabs in 1948 - was rebuilt, and a separate Jewish neighborhood (Kiryat Arba) was built on empty Israel - owned land (state land) on the outskirts of Hebron.
Hebron is a biblical and holy city, whose ancient Jewish community was expelled in 1929 after a bloody Arab pogrom. At the same time, a handful of secular farming settlements were established in the desolate Jordan Rift Valley where, under any territorial compromise, Israel must maintain a strong presence to protect its eastern flank. The first Jewish settlement in Samaria – the area of the West Bank that is most densely populated by Arabs – was approved in 1975.
In 1977 – a decade after the Six-Day War - only 3,500 Jewish settlers lived in the heart of West Bank (not including the Jordan Rift Valley farmers). Massive settlement activity took place between 1977 and 1984. From 1967 to the present, each Israeli government, right and left, has supported the settlements, although the degrees, locations and objectives have varied from government to government. This is reflected in the diversity of those who have chosen to live in the Territories.
The settlers represent a cross section of Israeli society. Settlers are urbane, well-integrated into Israeli society and, on the whole, more financially secure than Israelis inside the Green Line. They are better educated than the general population, with 33 percent of the adults holding undergraduate or post-graduate degrees. Thirty-five percent commute to jobs in Israel proper, and 42 percent earn incomes above the national average.
The settlements are hardly frontier-like strongholds, and look like other bedroom suburbs inside the Green Line. They are planned communities dominated by neighborhoods of modest Mediterranean-style, red-tiled villas and low-rise garden apartments, with preplanned services like schools, shopping and other amenities.
Violence is remarkably absent both from Israeli politics and from Jewish life.
Dismantling the settlements is an emotional issue, often accompanied by bitter verbal exchanges and dire warnings from the right and the left. Historically, verbal divisiveness has not led to civil wars. When Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt and handed over the Sinai, thousands of settlers were uprooted from 1982, most of them from the town of Yamit and surrounding Israeli agricultural villages. Ariel Sharon was the Israeli official who handled the dismantling of the settlements as minister of defense – an evacuation marked by bitter public protest but no bloodshed.
Two studies sought to evaluate how settlers would respond to territorial compromise involving dismantling, and found evidence that the vast majority of them would not resort to violence:
A poll taken in 1999 by BESA and CPSR found 79 percent would not resist in any way a government decision to evacuate settlements; 8 percent advocated verbal confrontation and 7 percent passive resistance; only 2 percent condoned use of physical force (hitting, use of weapons, etc.); 80 percent opposed any confrontation with the Israeli army; and only 2 percent advocated violent confrontations in order to prevent evacuation.
A poll conducted by Peace Now in 2002 found that, despite two years of violence, the number who would violently oppose a withdrawal remained stable. The poll showed that a majority of the settlers would willingly give up their homes if a real peace agreement was reached that required them to relocate.73 More than two-thirds (68 percent) of the settlers said they would obey a democratic decision for withdrawal, and only the smallest of minorities (6 percent) said they would “resist such an order.” Peace Now concluded that 2 percent of West Bank/Gaza settlers can be labeled ‘extremists,’ having declared that they would resist with “all means.”
Most Israelis living in the Territories demonstrated extraordinary self-restraint in recent years.
In May 2003, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) statistics showed that on average, there are 100 incidents a week in Israel and the Territories where Jews are targeted by Palestinian terrorists. Since Oslo and the outbreak of the Al Aqsa intifada, Israeli settlers have faced an unrelenting series of drive-by-shootings and terrorist attacks on public buses and bus stops; mortar and rocket attacks on civilian settlements, and knifings and shooting of civilians in their homes, on the way home from prayers, commuting to work or on the way home from a family affair, including children at play and children on school buses. Between September 2000 and October 2004, Arab terrorists took the lives of 34 Jewish children and 176 adult civilians in the West Bank and Gaza,74 of a Jewish population of 250,000.75
Arabs create the impression that Palestinians are at risk from violent Israelis. A close analysis of realities reveals who is really endangered. All Jewish Israeli schools and many communities, both in sensitive areas inside Israel and settlements in the Territories, are surrounded by perimeter fences and alarm systems and public places from restaurants and banks to wedding halls including school (and school trips), have armed guards at the entrance. This is not the case in Israeli Arab communities or among Palestinians in the Territories, who are not exposed to terrorist attacks on civilians.
Settlers as a community attempt systematically to avoid conflict.
Settlers travel on bypass roads built by Israel that detour around Arab villages. They ride in bulletproof buses or wear flak jackets on their commute in their cars. More recently, some settlers have surrounded their villages with security fences. Except in rare instances, Jewish settlers, have not taken wholesale retaliation against Palestinian villages, or attempted to establish a balance of terror.76 B’tselem’s most damning report77 – a list of 32 Palestinian civilians reportedly killed by Israeli citizens, and the circumstances surrounding their deaths - reveal that 15 out of the 30 incidents listed involved Palestinians who were shot while killing Israelis or infiltrating Jewish settlements with lethal intent..
The other 15 innocent civilians murdered, where settlers are suspected to be involved, are inexcusable under any circumstances, but the number of such acts is objectively small. In 1999, the late Professor Ehud Sprinzak, a fellow at the Counter-terrorism Institute in Herzliya, an expert on right-wing extremism, published a study entitled Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination. Professor Sprinzak not only said that in his estimation Israelis, including settlers, would not resort to armed resistance if ordered by their government to abandon their homes; he said that had other Western nations faced Israel’s external and internal challenges, their streets would have been flooded with blood.”78 This was said before the quantum leap in levels of violence since September 2000. There were 17,600 (!) incidents79 where Jews were targeted by Palestinian terrorists between September 2000 and May 2003 alone (with and without casualties) on both sides of the Green Line
Calls for a freeze on Jewish construction in disputed Territories - while Arab construction, which far exceeds Jewish development, continues unfettered - are clearly biased.
Arabs claim that Jewish settlements “change the status” of the Territories and represent a distortion of the Oslo Accords. The phrase applies to acts that change the political status of the disputed territory - such as outright Israeli annexation or a Palestinian declaration of statehood. Since Jewish settlements are legal, any halt in construction should be reciprocated.
The Oslo Accords do not forbid Israeli or Arab settlement activity. Charges that further Jewish settlement activity preempts final negotiations by establishing realities requires reciprocity. If the West Bank and Gaza were de jure part of the British Mandate, and if the Mandate borders are the last legal document concerning this territory; and if Jews were forcibly expelled from the West Bank and Gaza in 1948 during a war of aggression aimed at them—then these Territories must be considered disputed Territories, at the least.
The Israeli-Palestinian border dispute is like every other major and minor boundary dispute around the globe. Since the West Bank and Gaza were redeemed in 1967 in a defensive war and are not “Occupied Territories” gained illegally by a bellicose power; and since this fact is recognized in the wording of UN Resolutions 242 and 338 that call for a settlement to institute “secure and recognized borders,” calling for a construction freeze on Jewish settlements should, logically, be paralleled by a freeze on Arab construction in the West Bank.
According to a former policy planning official,80 the tempo of Arab construction is “more than 10 times the number of buildings under construction [in the Territories] than those approved [by the Israeli government] for the [Jewish] settlers.”
The Oslo II Agreement recognizes de facto the special status and security needs of Jewish communities in the West Bank.
The agreement regulates the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis by establishing three types of administration: full Palestinian self-rule in totally Arab areas (Area A); Israeli civil and military control in totally Jewish areas (Area C); and civil Palestinian self-rule and Israeli military control in intermediate areas (Area B). The final status remains to be established, which is why “Legally Held Disputed Territories” represents the appropriate and accurate term.
Rather than negotiate a settlement, as agreed to in September 1993, Palestinians elect to break their commitment and to intensify the use of terrorism as a political vehicle in a low-tech war of aggression.
The status issue has been co-opted and warped by the Palestinians in an attempt to curtail Jewish settlement. Neither the 1993 “Oslo I” (the Declaration of Principles) nor the 1995 Oslo II (Interim Agreement) stipulate that the construction of settlements, neighborhoods, houses, roads or other building projects cease - pending a peacefully negotiated final settlement between the parties.81 According to a former policy planning official,82 the pace of Arab construction is “more than 10 times the number of buildings under construction [in the Territories] than those approved [by the Israeli government] for the [Jewish] settlers.” Calls for a freeze on Jewish construction in the Territories - while Arab construction continues unfettered, are unfair – all the more so, in light of the fact that Jews were forcibly expelled in 1948.
Legalities aside, before 1967 there were no Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and for the first ten years of so-called occupation there were almost no Jewish settlers in the West Bank. And still there was no peace with the Palestinians. The notion that Jewish communities pose an obstacle to peace is a red herring designed to blame Israel for lack of progress in the Peace Process and enable Palestinian leadership to continue to reject any form of compromise and reconciliation.
The British governed the territory of Palestine for more than 30 years. Their experience and observations with the Jews and Arabs in Palestine were well documented and continually reported to the League of Nations.
The British High Commissioner on the Administration of Palestine observed the Jews in the land of Palestine and reported in 1925:
“… [the Jews] are on an intellectual level distinctly above that of the ordinary [Arab] peasant; they are much more than hewers of wood and drawers of water; they read, they think, they discuss; in the evenings they have music, classes, lectures; there is among them a real activity of mind. And the third factor is that they are fully conscious that they are not engaged in some casual task, without special significance other than the provision of their own livelihood; they know quite well that they are an integral part of the movement for the redemption of Palestine; that they, few though they may be, are the representatives, and in a sense the agents, of the whole of Jewry; that the daily work in which they are engaged is in touch with the prophecies of old and with the prayers of millions now. So they find the labour of their hands to be worthy in itself; it is made lighter by intellectual activity; it is ennobled by the patriotic ideal which it serves. That is the reason why these pioneers are happy.” (emphasis added)
In Command Paper No. 1700, issued by His Majesty's Government in April, 1922, the [British] Secretary of State described the Jewish National Home in Palestine in the following terms:
“This [Jewish] community [in Palestine] has its own political organs, an elected assembly for the direction of its domestic concerns, elected councils in the towns, and an organisation for the control of its schools. It has its elected Chief Rabbinate and Rabbinical Council for the direction of its religious affairs. Its business is conducted in Hebrew as a vernacular language, and a Hebrew press serves its needs. It has its distinctive intellectual life and displays considerable economic activity. This [Jewish] community, then, with its town and country population, its political, religious and social organisations, its own language, its own customs, its own life, has in fact ‘national’ characteristics.” (emphasis added)
Evaluating Palestinian Arabs behavior, the British concluded:
(July 1937, Palestine Royal Report) Two peoples at war cannot promote each other’s welfare.
For these reasons we find ourselves reluctantly convinced that no prospect of a lasting settlement can be founded on moderate Arab nationalism. At every successive crisis in the past that hope has been entertained. In each case it has proved illusory.
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