To the casual visitor or tourist driving through the occupied West Bank or Jerusalem, Israeli settlements may appear as just another set of houses on a hill.
The middle-class suburban style townhouses, built fast and locked in a grid of uniform units, stand like fortified compounds, in direct contrast to the sprawling limestone Palestinian homes below.
Settlement homes, mostly constructed of cement with a cosmetic limestone cladding, tend to fashion a similar look: American-style villas topped by red-tiled roofs and surrounded by lush, neatly trimmed green lawns.
The largest settlement, Modi’in Illit, houses more than 64,000 Israeli Jews in the occupied West Bank. The mega-settlement has its own mayor, as well as schools, shopping malls and medical centres.
Some settlements even have their own universities.
Today, between 600,000 and 750,000 Israelis live in these sizeable settlements, equivalent to roughly 11 percent of the total Jewish Israeli population.
They live beyond the internationally recognised borders of their state, on Palestinian land that Israel occupied in 1967, comprising East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Since then, the Israeli government has openly funded and built settlements for Israeli Jews to live there, offering incentives and subsidised housing.
So why have these housing compounds caused so much rancour and been called a threat to the prospect of peace in the Holy Land?
Follow this journey to find out.
What are settlements and how did they come about?
Contrary to common belief, settlements are a legacy of the pre-1948 period, before the creation of Israel.
In the 1880s, the community of Palestinian Jews, known as the Yishuv, amounted to three percent of the total population. They were apolitical and did not aspire to build a modern Jewish state.
But in the late 19th century, the Zionist movement – a political ideology – grew out of Eastern Europe, claiming that Jews were a nation or race that deserved a modern “Jewish state”.
The movement, citing the biblical belief that God promised Palestine to the Jews, began to buy land there and build settlements to strengthen their claim to the land.
At the time, these settlements, built largely on the coastal plain and in the north of the country, were called “Kibbutzim” and “Moshavim”.
The first Kibbutz Degania, was established in 1909 by European Jewish colonists. Tel Aviv, now the economic capital of Israel, was also built in the early 20th century and was one of the first settlements.
The approach is known as “creating facts on the ground” – laying a stake in an area to ensure that it will be part of a future state and difficult to get rid of later on.
The distribution of the settlements determined the map of the proposed United Nations Partition Plan for Jewish and Palestinian states in 1947.
By 1948, prior to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by the Zionist movement, Jews had control over less than six percent of the land.
What happened in 1948?
As European Jews began to colonise Palestine – many pushed by anti-Semitic persecution in Europe – the balance of land control between Palestinians and immigrant Jews shifted significantly.
The project was facilitated by the British, who were occupying Palestine from 1917 to 1947, with the aim of building a Jewish state.
Between 1922 and 1935, the Jewish population rose from nine percent to nearly 27 percent of the total population, displacing tens of thousands of Palestinian tenants from their lands as Zionists bought land from absentee landlords.
Under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, Jews were allocated 55 percent of the land, encompassing many of the main cities with Palestinian Arab majorities and the important coastline from Haifa to Jaffa.
The plan would deprive the Palestinian state of key agricultural lands and seaports, which led the Palestinians to reject the proposal.
Shortly after the issuance of UN Resolution 181 that called for partition, war broke out between Palestinian Arabs and Zionist armed groups, who, unlike the Palestinians, had gained extensive training and arms from fighting alongside Britain in World War II.
The loss of land in Palestine
Zionist paramilitary groups launched a violent process of ethnic cleansing in the form of large-scale attacks, massacres, and destruction of entire villages aimed at the mass expulsion of Palestinians to build the Jewish state. By the end of 1949, the Jewish state had taken up some 78 percent of historical Palestine.
Of the remaining Palestinian territories, the West Bank and East Jerusalem came under Jordan’s control, while Gaza was placed under Egyptian control.
The international community recognised Israel based on the 1948 borders.
But less than 20 years later – in 1967 – another Arab-Israeli war broke out. During the fighting, Israel militarily occupied the rest of historical Palestine, consisting of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel also occupied the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian Golan Heights. With the exception of the Sinai Peninsula, all the other territories remain occupied until today.
In response, the UN Security Council members voted unanimously for Resolution 242 on November 22, 1967 – exactly fifty years ago.
The resolution stated that Israel must withdraw from the territories it seized in the war and formed the basis for all ensuing diplomatic negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the concept of “land for peace”.
Israel, however, did not accept the resolution and continues to violate it to this day, 50 years later, by building settlements on the territories meant for a Palestinian state.
What Israel did with Jerusalem
Shortly after the 1967 war, Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem and declared it part of its “eternal, undivided” capital.
This meant that it extended its law to East Jerusalem and claimed it as part of Israel, unlike the West Bank, which it physically occupies but does not claim.
The annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognised by any country in the world as it violates several principles of international law, which outlines that an occupying power does not have sovereignty in the territory it occupies.
The international community, including the US, officially regards East Jerusalem as occupied territory.
However, since Israel considers East Jerusalem part of its state, it calls the settlements there “neighbourhoods”.
Israel’s settlement project after 1967: How is it different?
When the guns fell silent in 1967, the Israeli state began building colonies, or settlements, for its Jewish Israeli citizens on Palestinian land it had just occupied.
Settlements have become the hallmark of the Israeli colonial project in Palestine.
In the last 50 years, the Israeli government has transferred between 600,000 and 750,000 Jewish Israelis to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They live in at least 160 settlements and outposts.
This means that roughly 11 percent of Israel’s 6.6 million Jewish population now lives on occupied land, outside the internationally recognised borders of Israel.
The dilemma of the settlements and the occupation has effectively split Israelis between those who believe it is their God-given right to settle land that was promised to the Jewish people, and others who believe the settlements are a death sentence for the Jews.
To religious Jews, the outcome of the 1967 war and the seizure of the remainder of historical Palestine – particularly East Jerusalem, which houses the Old City – led to a sense of euphoria.
Thousands of Jews, including secular Jews, flocked to the Western Wall, also known as the al-Buraq Wall to Muslims. They wept as they gave thanks for what they believed was a miracle from God.
The majority of Israeli Zionist leftists who oppose the settlement project however, believe in the Jewish state along 1948 borders and reject Israel’s expansion into the occupied territories.
To Palestinians, Israel’s occupation and the settlement project did not come as a surprise; the Zionist movement was founded by non-natives to colonise the land, just as they did in 1948.
Munir Nuseibah, a law professor at al-Quds University in Jerusalem, says the occupation and the settlement project “reminded the world of the colonial aspects of Israel”.
Map of East Jerusalem in 2007 shows the separation wall (in red) and the Israeli settlements in purple on areas of the occupied West Bank illegally annexed to Jerusalem. Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Why are they illegal under international law?
In a series of agreements known as the Geneva Conventions, formulated in the aftermath of World War II, the international community established a set of accepted rules and standards for the protection of civilians, prisoners and injured people in times of war.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which defines humanitarian protections for civilians caught in a war zone, an occupying power is forbidden from transferring parts of its civilian population into the territory it occupies.
The rationale behind this is simple.
1. To ensure that the occupation is temporary and allow for a solution to the conflict by preventing To ensure that the occupation is temporary and allow for a solution to the conflict by preventing the occupying power from acquiring long-term interests through military control.
2. To protect occupied civilians from theft of resources by the occupying power.
3. To prohibit a de facto situation in which two groups living on the same land are subject to two different legal systems, i.e. apartheid.
4. To prevent changes in the demographic makeup of the occupied territory.
But the Israeli government maintains that the status of the Palestinian territories is ambiguous, as there was no internationally recognised government in the territories prior to the 1967 war. The Israeli government argues that it took the territory from Jordan, which had control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem between 1949 and 1967, while Egypt had control of the Gaza Strip.
Israel regards the West Bank as “disputed” territory and thus refutes the existence of a military occupation there; saying the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply. But the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Court of Justice, and the international community have all affirmed that it does.
Israel also denies that any of the settlements were built on private Palestinian land.
What types of settlements are there?
There are three main types of Israeli colonies in the occupied Palestinian territories, all of which involve seizing Palestinian land and are all illegal under international law.
Built by the Israeli government, mainly in rural areas in the West Bank and Jerusalem, many are on private Palestinian property and within close proximity to Palestinian towns and cities,
After the signing of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, the Israeli government stopped officially building new settlements but expanded existing ones,
In 2017, Israel started building the first new settlement in two decades.
Built without the official authorisation of the Israeli government but with financial support from Israeli politicians and government ministries,
Illegal under Israeli law, but usually retroactively approved as official settlements,
In 2017, Israel passed a land-theft law that allows the legalisation of outposts provided the settlers could prove ignorance that they had built on privately owned land or under state orders.
Established mainly by Israeli right-wing organisations with the help of the Israeli government in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem,
Some involve taking over Palestinian homes and evicting their residents using Israeli laws that favour Jews over non-Jews,
Of the 200,000 Israeli Jews that live in East Jerusalem settlements, some 2,000 live in the midst of Palestinian neighbourhoods under army protection