What is meant by the terms “settlements” and “settlers” in the occupied Palestinian territory? Are they a problem? Why does this issue matter?
In any discussion of the Israeli settlement issue, it is important to understand what these terms mean. In a very basic way, Israeli settlements are communities of Israeli citizens that are located in occupied Palestinian territory, in either the West Bank or in East Jerusalem, and settlers are the Israeli citizens who live in the settlements. During the occupation, (ie since 1967) “with the political, military and financial support of the Israeli government, settlers have built settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory. These lands were seized or expropriated from Palestinians by military orders….The settlements were recognized by the Israeli Ministry of Interior even though they are illegal under international law ” ( pg 39, A Basic Background Resource to the Current Context of Israel and Palestine: an Historical, Political and Human Rights Review, EAPPI 2010)
International law is clear. “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” (Article 49, Geneva Convention IV) “This has been confirmed by the International Court of Justice, the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention and the United Nations Security Council.” ( UN OCHA Factsheet “The Humanitarian Impact of Israeli Settlement Policies Update December 2012”, found at www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_settlements_FactSheet_December_2012_english.pdf) The United Nations Security Council Resolution 446, 22 March 1979 was strongly worded: “… the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” Furthermore, according to Diakonia International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Resource Centre in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, “land seizure for settlements is illegal.” (www.diakonia.se/ihl).
The State of Israel takes a different position on this matter. According to Diakonia, the Israeli position is that “the West Bank is not occupied territory. The Geneva Conventions are not applicable, and even if they were, Article 49 does not prohibit voluntary, and individual, transfer.” As such, Israel continues to build new settlement units, with settlement growth mushrooming across the West Bank. According to the UN OCHA Factsheet “Since 1967, Israel has established about 150 settlements (residential and others) in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem; and in addition there were 100 “outposts” erected by settlers without official authorization… In 2011, settler population was estimated at over 520,000, with an average rate of growth over the past ten years of 5.3%, as compared to 1.8% for the Israeli population as a whole.”
In terms of land usage, “in total 43% of the West Bank is allocated to settlement local and regional councils.” (UN OCHA Fact Sheet). Following “a threefold increase in the number of new settler housing units which were issued for tender in 2012, compared to 2011 (Peace Now); on 30 November, the Israeli authorities announced plans to build 3,000 new settlement units in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank” (UN OCHA Fact Sheet). With these kinds of statistics, you can easily see why settlements and settlement expansion are viewed as a problem by the Palestinian people. As more and more land is taken for settlement expansion and supporting services, less land is available for Palestinian development and livelihoods. This leads to crowded and cramped housing, insufficient infrastructure, diminished incomes, and the resultant displacement of families.
But the problems don’t end there. “Approximately 540 internal checkpoints, roadblocks and other physical obstacles impede Palestinian movement within the West Bank; these obstacles exist primarily to protect settlers and facilitate their movement, including to and from Israel.” (UN OCHA Fact Sheet) These obstacles take up considerable time out of a Palestinian’s day when things run smoothly, can totally impede Palestinian movement when things are not running smoothly, can be a health hazard when Palestinians are stopped at checkpoints from pursuing medical treatment, and are a source of ongoing frustration for Palestinians as they attempt to go about their daily affairs.
Inequitable water distribution is another significant issue. While the average Palestinian level of water consumption is approximately 70L/day, well below the World Health Organization’s recommended 100 L/day (Thirsting for Justice, Palestinian rights to water and sanitation, http://www.thirstingforjustice.org), Israeli settlers in the West Bank consume approximately six times the water used by Palestinians in the West Bank.(UN OCHA Fact Sheet)
Settler violence, apparent settler impunity, and the unequal application of law, creates other serious problems. “In 2012, one Palestinian was killed and approximately 1,300 injured by Israeli settlers or security forces in incidents directly or indirectly related to settlements, including demonstrations….Only ten percent of 781 investigations conducted by Israeli police into incidents of settler violence between 2005 and 2011 resulted in indictments (Yesh Din)…The failure to respect international law, along with the lack of adequate law enforcement vis-à-vis settler violence and takeover of land has led to a state of (settler) impunity, which encourages further violence and undermines the physical security and livelihoods of Palestinians. Those (Palestinians) demonstrating against settlement expansion or access restrictions imposed for the benefit of settlements (including the Barrier) are regularly subject to arrest or injury by Israeli forces.” (UN OCHA Fact Sheet)
Furthermore, there are two sets of laws for people living in the West Bank. Israeli civil law applies to Israeli citizens, and the much harsher Israeli military law governs Palestinians. “Israeli civil law is de facto applied to all settlers and settlements across the occupied West Bank, while Israeli military law is applied to Palestinians…As a result, two separate legal systems and sets of rights are applied by the same authority in the same area depending on the national origin of the persons, thereby discriminating against Palestinians.” (UN OCHA Fact Sheet) This inequitable application of law dependent upon national origin can only be described as a blatant form of discrimination and a grave human rights concern.
As settlement growth continues, there is mounting concern about the increasing fragmentation of the West Bank. In particular, announced plans to add 3000 housing units (as noted above) and supporting services to the Ma’ale Adumim settlement, located east of East Jerusalem, are raising particular concerns. The primary north south access route between the north and south West Bank passes through this area. Settlement construction in this location would limit access from the north part of the West Bank to the south part, would limit access to Palestinian East Jerusalem, and would create a settlement wedge extending from Palestinian East Jerusalem through almost to the Dead Sea. This would effectively split the West Bank into two sections. This split, in combination with the access limitations, is felt to jeopardize the future possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state.
Through the settlement endeavour, Israel is increasingly populating the Palestinian West Bank with more and more Israeli citizens. As they do so, they take more and more Palestinian resources and create more and more hardship for the Palestinian people. The settlers come in direct contravention of international humanitarian law. They come not as equals, but as colonizers.
Peace, Salaam, Shalom,