A History of Illegal Jewish Settlements in Palestine

History of Illegal Jewish Settlements in Palestine

November 25, 2019 - B'TSELEM

From 1967 to the end of 2017, more than 200 Israeli settlements were established in the West Bank. They include:

131 settlements officially recognized by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior;

About 110 settlements built without official authorization but with governmental support and assistance (known as “illegal outposts”);

Several settlement enclaves inside the city of Hebron;

11 neighborhoods in the areas of the West Bank that Israel annexed to the municipal jurisdiction of Jerusalem in 1967, and several settlement enclaves within Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Another 16 settlements that had been established in the Gaza Strip, and four in the northern West Bank, were dismantled in 2005 as part of the Disengagement Plan.

Settlements are the single most important element shaping life in the West Bank. Their destructive impact on the human rights of Palestinians far exceeds the hundreds of thousands of dunams seized to build them.

More than 620,000 Israeli citizens currently reside in settlements. Of these, about 209,270 live in the parts of the West Bank that Israel annexed to the municipal jurisdiction of Jerusalem (according to Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research figures from late 2016), and 413,400 live throughout the rest of the West Bank (according to Central Bureau of Statistics figures from late 2017).

The settlements are the single most important factor in shaping life in the West Bank. Their destructive impact on the human rights of Palestinians extends far beyond the hundreds of thousands of dunams [1 dunam = 1,000 sq. meters], including farmland and grazing areas, that Israel appropriated from Palestinians in order to build them.

More land has been expropriated to pave hundreds of kilometers of roads for settler use only; roadblocks, checkpoints, and other measures that limit Palestinian movement only have been erected based on the location of settlements; Palestinian landowners have been effectively denied access to much of their farmland, both within settlements and outside them; and the winding route of the Separation Barrier, which severely violates the rights of Palestinians living near it, was established inside the West Bank in order to leave as many settlements as possible – and large tracts of land for expanding them – on the western side of the barrier.

All the settlement practices in the West Bank share the same objective, although those employed in the urban areas of Hebron and East Jerusalem – where Palestinians have also been dispossessed of their homes and of other structures – take a different form. 

In the early years of the occupation, the main ploy that Israel used to take over land for building settlements was to seize the land “for military purposes”. Military seizure orders were issued for some 31,000 dunams, most of which were earmarked for building settlements. In June 1979, the military issued a seizure order for privately-owned land near Nablus, which was slated for establishing the settlement of Elon Moreh.

Several Palestinians petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ), arguing that the seizure violated international law, since it served a civilian purpose of building a settlement rather than true military needs. The court had rejected this argument in previous petitions, accepting the state’s claim that settlements contribute to security.

In this case, however, top security officials stated that building a settlement at that location would serve no military purpose. Also, some of the settlers joined the proceedings as respondents, explaining to the court that it was their intention to settle in the area permanently, for religious and political reasons, rather than to promote security.

Given these unique circumstances, the court could not rule that the establishment of the settlement would serve military needs – although it did not rule out such a possibility in general. The justices restricted their decision to the specific case of Elon Moreh, ruling that the land seizure was meant to serve a civilian rather than military purpose and therefore breached international law.

The court did not completely deny the possibility of seizing private land for building settlements, but held that when the dominant reason for issuing a seizure order is the establishment of a civilian settlement rather than military considerations, the order is unlawful.

This ruling made it difficult for Israel to continue seizing Palestinian land as it had done until that point. Instead, it required the state to obtain agreement between top security officials on the military advantage of every planned settlement, and to ensure that the settlers kept their intentions to themselves. To circumvent this, the government announced that it would thereafter build settlements only on land that had been declared state land.

However, when the state sought such land, it discovered that only some 687,000 dunams were considered state land at the time, mostly in the Jordan Valley and in the Judean Desert. This frustrated the governmental plan to build settlements along the central mountain ridge of the West Bank. Therefore, the state came up with a new system for declaring state land.

This system was founded on rewriting legal provisions and applying a completely different approach to the Ottoman Land Code, which governs land ownership in the West Bank, than the standard interpretation applied until then. The new approach made it much easier to declare state land, even when the land in question was considered private or collective Palestinian property under British and later Jordanian rule.

One method for achieving this was requiring Palestinians to regularly cultivate farmland as a prerequisite to acquiring ownership rights; another was to disregard the provisions of local law, which grants Palestinian communities collective rights to use grazing areas and other public land. By employing these new tactics, from 1979 to 2002 Israel declared more than 900,000 dunams as state land.

There are now some 1,200,000 dunams of state land in Area C, constituting 36.5% of Area C and 22% of the entire West Bank. An additional 200,000 dunams of state land are located in areas A and B, where planning is in the hands of the Palestinian Authority.

A comparative survey carried out by B’Tselem in the area of Ramallah revealed massive differences between the amount of land that Jordan defined as government property in areas registered before the occupation, and the amount that Israel declared state land in areas that the Jordanians had not managed to register prior to 1967.

The results of the survey indicate that a significant proportion of the land that Israel declared as state land is actually private Palestinian property that was taken from its lawful owners through legal maneuvering, in breach of both local and international law.

This process of land takeover also contravenes basic tenets of due process and natural justice. In many cases, the Palestinian residents were not aware that their land had been registered as state property and when they found out, it was too late to appeal.

The burden of proof always lies with Palestinians claiming ownership; even if landowners did manage to prove their ownership over the land, in some cases it was registered state land based on the claim that it had been handed over to a settlement “in good faith”.

Even if all the declarations of state land were lawful, public land – including the land declared as government property prior to 1967 – is meant to serve the population of the occupied territory, i.e. the Palestinian public, not the State of Israel or its citizens.

However, Israel prohibits Palestinian use of this land almost entirely and considers it Israeli property. In keeping with this policy, Israel has allocated to settlement vast tracts of this “state land”, stretching far beyond their built-up sections. The lands allocated to settlements have been declared closed military zones and are off limits to Palestinians, except by special permit. In contrast, Israeli citizens, Jews from around the world and tourists can enter them freely.

At present, settlements cover 538,130 dunams – almost 10% of the West Bank. Their regional councils control another 1,650,370 dunams, including vast open areas that have not been attached to any particular settlement. This brings the total area under the direct control of settlements to 40% of the West Bank, and 63% of Area C.

Along with this governmental land grab, settlers have exploited the forced separation between Palestinians and their land to build houses, outposts and roads, sow fields and groves, graze livestock and take over natural water sources – all outside the vast areas already allocated to the settlements.

This is attended by routine violence against Palestinians. These actions play a major role in the implementation of Israel’s policy in the West Bank by complementing official measures. The settlers’ apparently independent actions serve as a privatized system for taking over land, allowing Israel to establish and expand entire settlement blocs through an unofficial sidetrack while formally disavowing these actions.

Unlike the restrictive planning policy enforced upon Palestinian communities, Israeli settlements are fully represented in the planning process, enjoying detailed outline plans and advanced infrastructure. Although the state uses the same professional and legal terms to refer to both Israeli and Palestinian construction in the West Bank with– such as building and planning laws, urban master plans, planning procedures and illegal construction – it applies them very differently in practice.

When it comes to Israeli settlements, the state turns a blind eye and offers support and retroactive approval, all as part of an overarching policy to de facto annex parts of the West Bank to Israel’s sovereign territory. Palestinian communities, on the other hand, are subjected to painstaking bureaucracy, stalled plans and widespread demolitions, in keeping with Israel’s policy to prevent Palestinian development in the West Bank and continue dispossessing Palestinians of their land.

The establishment of the settlements contravenes international humanitarian law (IHL), which states that an occupying power may not relocate its own citizens to the occupied territory or make permanent changes to that territory, unless these are needed for imperative military needs, in the narrow sense of the term, or undertaken for the benefit of the local population.

The existence of settlements also leads to the violation of many human rights of Palestinians, including the rights to property, equality, an adequate standard of living and freedom of movement. In addition, the radical changes that Israel has made to the map of the West Bank preclude any real possibility of establishing an independent, viable Palestinian state in fulfilment of the right to self-determination.

Although the West Bank is not part of Israel's sovereign territory, Israeli has applied most of its domestic laws to the settlements and their residents. As a result, the settlers enjoy almost all the same privileges as citizens living within Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinians continue to live under martial law and are thereby systematically deprived of their rights and denied the ability to have any real impact on policymaking with respect to the territory in which they live. In creating this reality, Israel has formed a regime in which a person’s rights depend on his or her national identity.

Israel has refrained from formally annexing the West Bank (except in East Jerusalem). In practice, however, it treats the settlements established throughout Area C as extensions of its sovereign territory and has virtually eliminated the distinction for Israeli citizens – while concentrating the Palestinian population in 165 disconnected “islands” (Areas A and B).

This double movement, of Israeli settlers taking over more and more West Bank land and Palestinians being pushed aside, has been a consistent mainstay of Israeli policy in the West Bank since 1967, with all Israeli legislative, legal, planning, funding and defense bodies working towards that end.

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