The Israeli “Settlements” in the Territories have been heavily criticised as an “obstacle to peace” and they have also been denounced as “illegal”.

This article briefly describes the Settlements in the area described by the Jordanians as the “West Bank” and the processes which led to their creation.

As at 2005 the region had a total Palestinian population of 1,561,000, and an Israel settler population of 210,000. The settler movement began after the Six-day War in 1967, when an ultra-religious “Land of Israel Movement” was founded by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, with the aim of promoting Jewish settlement in the ancient Biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria on the West Bank. In 1968, adherents of the movement, in disguise as tourists, infiltrated the Arab city of Hebron, which is the site of the tombs of the Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, holy to both Jews and Muslims. Hebron had always been a religious centre with a small Jewish population until the Jews were massacred in the riots of 1929, and it had great ideological significance for the movement.

The Israeli government, moved the infiltrators to a nearby army base, and eventually permitted the establishment of a Jewish suburb on the outskirts of the city. Over ten years later, in 1979, Rabbi Levinger and his family and a group of supporters, moved into the Hadassah Clinic in the centre of town, which was one of the places where Jewish residents had lived in 1929.

By 1975, the settlement movement had adopted the name Gush Emunim (the “Bloc of the Faithful”). The movement followed the teachings of the religious Zionist philosopher Rabbi Abraham Kook, who held that the redemption of the Land of Israel was divinely ordained, and that it could occur even before the coming of the Messiah. As the Gush leader Israel Medad interpreted the teachings of Rabbi Kook’s son, “the main purpose of the Jewish people is to attain both physical and spiritual redemption by living in and building up a complete Land of Israel. The territory of the Land of Israel is assigned a sanctity which obligates its retention…as well as its settlement, even in defiance of government authority.”

In December 1975 the movement organised marches and demonstrations throughout the West Bank, including sit-ins at the site of proposed settlements, which were broken up by the army. Their first major success came after a tent city had been removed seven times by the army, with permission to establish a settlement at Eilon Moreh near Nablus. Shortly afterwards the Rabin Labour government agreed to the establishment of a town in a strategic position four miles east of Jerusalem The town, Ma’ale Adumim, eventually became a major industrial centre with a population of about 30,000.

Settlements, both religious and secular, now appeared throughout the Territories.

Under Labour governments, most conformed to a conception of Israel’s strategic needs, as outlined by Labour leader Yigal Allon in the unofficial proposal described as the “Allon Plan”, and were away from centres of Arab population.

After 1977 the Likud government of Menahem Begin, with Ariel Sharon as Defence Minister and later as Agriculture Minister, actively encouraged the development of settlements in Gaza and on the West Bank, to the extent of offering housing benefits and tax concessions.

By 1985 there were some 40,000 settlers, and by 1996, the number had risen to about 140,000.

As at 2005 the Israeli population in the Territories was over 210,000, about 3% of Israel’s population. Among the settlements on the West Bank are a number of substantial towns, some secular and some religious. There are also small villages, and tiny unauthorised outposts of people living in caravans.

A typical such settlement is the small modern town of Efrat located at about 15 minutes’ drive south of Jerusalem. It was established in 1980, and as at 2005 it had some 7,500 residents. Efrat’s population is mostly religious Zionist, and includes many “Modern Orthodox” Jews who have emigrated from the United States. It is in the area of the Etzion Bloc of Jewish villages, most of whose inhabitants were killed by the Arab Legion of Transjordan in 1948 and which were rebuilt after 1967.

The Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies has prepared this summary of the population of the West Bank settlements:

“Greater Jerusalem: This includes Gush Etzion, the city of Ma’aleh Adumim, the local authorities of Givat Zeev, Betar Ilit, Efrat, and Har-Adar, and additional rural settlements belonging to the Benjamin regional council. There are a total of 20 settlements in Greater Jerusalem, containing a total population of 52,000.

West Samaria: This includes the local authorities of Ariel, Emmanuel, Karnei Shomron, Kedumim, Elkana, Oranit, Alfei Menashe, and additional rural settlements belonging to the Samaria Regional Council. West Samaria contains a total of 18 settlements, with a total population of 44,000.

West Benjamin: This includes the local authorities of Kiryat Sefer and Beit Arieh, and additional rural settlements belonging to the Benjamin Regional Council. There are a total of 12 settlements in West Benjamin, with a total population of 14,000.

The Jordan Valley and Judean Desert: This includes the Ma’aleh Efrayim local authority, and additional settlements belonging to the Jordan Valley, Megilot, Benjamin, and South Mt. Hebron Regional Councils. It consists of a total of 44 settlements with a total population of 17,000.

The Richan-Dotan Bloc: This lies in northern Samaria adjacent to the Green Line (by Wadi ‘Ara) and includes five settlements with a total population of 1,500.

The ‘Einav-Sal’it Bloc: This lies in northwest Samaria adjacent to the Green Line (near the Israeli seaside city of Netanya) and includes four settlements with a population of 2,000.

The Eshkolot-Shim’a Bloc: This lies in southern Judea next to the Green Line (near the Israeli desert cities of Beer Sheva and Arad) and includes five settlements with a population of 1,000.

Aside from these blocs there are 16 isolated settlements that are not included in typical settlement blocs, with a total population of 13,000. The largest of these are Hebron-Kiryat Arba (population 5,750) and Beit El, near the Arab city of Ramallah, (population 3,400).”

The settlements are fiercely opposed by the Palestinian leadership, and they have been described as illegal in UN resolutions.

The legality argument is based on Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in time of War – “The occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territory it occupies”.

It is a proposition which is highly arguable since the Territories are not “occupied” in the sense that they do not belong to any sovereign state other than Israel. Also Article 49 arose historically in the context of the Nazi deportations of the Second World War, and its original aim was to protect the humanitarian rights of those who might be “transferred” or “deported”.

At present the rights of the parties, including settlements, are governed by the terms of the agreements implementing the Oslo Accords which set up the Palestinian Authority. These provide that the issue of “Settlements” is to be a subject of the “final status negotiations” and that meanwhile Israel is to be responsible for the security of “Israelis and Settlements”.

(The legal arguments are summarised at www.aijac.org.au/resources/reports/international_law.pdf)