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Explainer: Netanyahu staunchly supported Israeli settlements - what is the history of this controversial practice?

As Israel sees a change in leaders, Hannah McCarthy looks at the history of settlements and the controversy surrounding them.

Hannah McCarthy

Updated Jun 18th 2021, 8:32 AM

THIS WEEK, THE 12-year reign of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister of Israel came to an end. A coalition of right-wing, left-wing and Arab groups led by Naftali Bennett has formed a new government with a one-seat majority in the Israeli Knesset.

Bennett, an ultra-nationalist and tech entrepreneur, is a strong supporter of the Israeli settlement movement which is viewed as a key driver of the 11-day Gaza War in May. 248 Palestinians and 12 Israelis are estimated to have died during the conflict.

pjimage (6) Netanyahu, left and new Prime Minister Bennett. Source: PA

Settlements are viewed as a key obstacle to a peaceful resolution in the region and recently, Ireland became the first EU state to describe them as the “de facto annexation” of Palestinian land.

This article provides a summary of what settlements are, why they were established, and Irish and EU policy on them:

Key dates

Palestinian Arabs however refused to support this resolution, as they viewed the division as unfair to Arab people who would remain in Jewish territory following the division. This decision has been described as a “mistake” by Mahmoud Abbas, the current Palestinian President in the West Bank. 

  • 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War / Nakbah: After Israel declared independence in May 1948, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt sent troops to destroy the new Israel state. 

Faced with a much stronger Israeli military than anticipated, the Arab states failed and entered into ceasefire agreements with Israel without formally recognising its border. 

Under these agreements, Israel gained some territory that had been granted to Palestinians under the 1947 UN Resolution

. Egypt maintained control over the Gaza Strip, which lies along its border, while Jordan retained control over the West Bank which lies along the Jordanian border and includes East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state. 

In Israel, the war is remembered as its War of Independence while in the Arab world, it is typically known as the Nakbah (or Catastrophe) because of the large number of Palestinians who became refugees or who were displaced after.

  • 1967 Six-Day War: Rising tensions and clashes at borders between Israel and the Arab states surrounding it culminated in a six-day war in June 1967. Israel achieved an overwhelming victory and shifted the borders of the land it controlled (but which was no within its official border under international law).

Israel drove Syrian forces from the Golan Heights, took control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and drove Jordanian forces from the West Bank.

Israeli forces were left in sole control of Jerusalem – a move that was not recognised by the international community until the Trump administration moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018

Where are settlements located?

Israeli settlements range from a few houses to urban areas the size of small cities. They are currently located in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights – all territories which are outside of the Israeli border recognised under the 1947 UN Resolution.

Who are settlers and why have they built settlements?

There are an estimated 675,000 settlers living in settlements outside of Israel’s internationally recognised border. Around 200,000 live in East Jerusalem and 475,000 live in the West Bank. 

israel-palestinians-jerusalem-evictions Yaakov Fauci, an Israeli-American Jewish settler from Long Island, N.Y., speaks during an interview in front of the home he occupies, half of the el-Kurd family home, in the Sheikh Jarrah. Source: AP/PA Images

A variety of religious, security and economic reasons have fuelled settlement expansion outside of Israel’s recognised border:

  • Religious: Ideological settlers view certain lands depicted in the Bible as part of the religious Jewish homeland. As a result, they have built settlements on land referred to as Judea and Samaria in the Bible, but which is now the West Bank.

In recent years, Jewish American non-profit group have provided significant funding for the establishment of settlements, as well as legal assistance for procuring evictions of Palestinians from their homes, most recently in East Jerusalem.  

What is the relationship between the Israeli government and the settlements?

Under Israeli law, the majority of settlements are technically illegal. However, the settler movement is an important power base in Israel where politics has moved towards the religious right. As such, Israeli governments have generally facilitated the building of settlements. Left-wing Israeli governments had typically slowed the rate of settlement expansion, while right-wing Israeli governments such as that lead by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have actively supported settlements

How do Palestinians view settlements?

Settlements are viewed as reducing the viability of a state for Palestinians. The settlements have created an increasingly fragmented territory for Palestinians and led to a significant Israeli military presence in Palestinian territory in order to protect settlements which makes daily life difficult for Palestinians

In addition, Israeli policy regarding settlements has led to forced evictions of Palestinians from their homes, as seen recently in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, and the demolition of 50,000 Palestinian homes, as estimated by Amnesty International

Has the Israeli government ever dismantled a settlement?

In 1982, settlements in the Sinai Peninsula were either dismantled or evacuated when the land was returned to Egypt following the peace agreement signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979. This was however quickly followed by the establishment of six new settlements in the West Bank to offset the ones dismantled in the Sinai Peninsula.

In 2005, settlements in the Gaza Strip were dismantled by the Israeli authorities who believed that the settlements were too difficult to defend in a Palestinian heartland. 

What is the position of settlements under international law?

Under international law, the legal border of Israel is viewed on the basis of the 1947 UN Resolution and an occupying power is prohibited from transferring its civilians into territories it occupies (i.e. Palestine) under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention

In 2004, the International Court of Justice, a branch of the United Nations, concluded that settlements in “occupied Palestinian territory” were illegal and impeded on Palestinian’s right to self-determination.  

What is Ireland’s policy on settlements?

In May, the Government voted in support of a Sinn Féin motion in the Dáil which described settlements as the “de facto annexation” of Palestinian land by Israel. Annexation is a stronger term than occupation and is used where a state forcibly or without permission takes possession of the recognised territory of another state e.g. Russia annexed Crimea which is within Ukraine’s recognised border in 2014. 

In addition, the motion recognised that the “forced displacement of the protected Palestinian population and the presence and expansion of Israeli settlements, in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, undermines the prospects of peace – not just in recent weeks but over decades – and represent flagrant violations of international law”.

The Government has however refused to pass the Occupied Territories Bill which if enacted would ban the sale of goods and services originating in illegal Israeli settlements established on stolen Palestinian land. The Government believes that the Bill is not compatible with EU law (a view which has been challenged) and that it would undermine Ireland’s role in a future Middle East peace process. 

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What is the EU’s policy on settlements?

The EU’s policy is that “all settlement activity is illegal under international law and it erodes the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace.”

In 2019, the European Court of Justice ruled that goods from territories occupied by Israel must be labelled as produced in occupied territory if being sold in the EU Member States.

Labels must “prevent consumers from being misled as to the fact that the State of Israel is present in the territories concerned as an occupying power and not as a sovereign entity”, the court said.

Where products are produced in settlements in occupied territory, the product must expressly state so, for example: “product from the Golan Heights (Israeli settlement)” or “product from West Bank (Israeli settlement)”.

Hannah McCarthy is a journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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