The residents of the villages, communities, and small cities that constitute the Jewish “settlements,” primarily on the West Bank, are living in hotly contested areas, though it may not feel like it. Indeed, perusing the shops and restaurants in the cosmopolitan Ma’ale Adumim mall, or walking the streets of Modi’in Illit (also called Kiryat Sefer), with its plethora of synagogues and yeshivot, it’s hard to believe that these areas are controversial, or that these residents could be possibly evacuated and their land turned over to the Palestinians. In fact, two of the biggest communities on the West Bank—Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit—are heavily ultra-Orthodox; the residents have no Zionistic agenda, no ambitious plan to “settle the land.” They just live there, sending their kids to school, and doing their grocery shopping.
Communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been around for centuries—and some, like Hebron, even longer, since Biblical times. During the British Mandate years (1917 – 1948), Jews began establishing communities in the West Bank area, such as in Gush Etzion. Building at that time was openly permitted, as the British had committed in the Balfour Declaration to help establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Even toward the end of the Mandate years, when Britain no longer supported the Zionist cause, there existed no prohibition on building settlements in any area of Mandatory Palestine.
Many of the settlements that had finally gained some footing by 1948 were destroyed during the war; the residents living in the Etzion bloc, for example, were tragically massacred. During the period between 1948 and 1967, the West Bank was controlled by Jordan, the Gaza Strip by Egypt, and the Golan Heights by Syria. However, the borders changed drastically following the Six Day War in 1967, and Israel gained control of all those lands, though only East Jerusalem was officially annexed.
Jews began rebuilding, establishing communities in places from where they had been exiled multiple times. Jewish settlements on the Sinai Peninsula were the first to be dismantled between 1978 and 1982, due to the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords and the subsequent withdrawal of Israel from the Sinai. But settlement building and expansion continued in other areas, most notably in Gaza and the West Bank. (In most Israeli news sources, the “West Bank” is referred to as Judea and Samaria, its Biblical appellation.)
The Palestinians, though, envision the area as part of their eventual Palestinian state, and they view Israeli settlements as occupying their rightful land. When Israel agreed to the “Road Map” in 2003, they agreed to freeze settlement construction on the condition that the Palestinians would renounce their terrorist tactics. Disputes have gone back and forth over the years, with Israelis continuing to expand existing settlements as needed to accommodate the “natural growth” of the inhabitants, and the Palestinian violence continuing to flare up.
In August 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, dismantling twenty-one settlements there, and evicting and relocating the residents. Four settlements on the West Bank were affected as well. The stated reason for the withdrawal was to achieve a stronger, more stable peace with the Palestinians. Many Israelis felt that the land rightfully belonged to the Jewish people, and should not have been returned. Furthermore, they claimed, the withdrawal and lack of Israeli presence in Gaza would lead to more violence.
Currently, there are over 480,000 Israelis living in the disputed areas; 276,000 in the Gush Etzion bloc of the West Bank, 18,000 in the Golan Heights, and 189,000 in East Jerusalem. Zero Jews live in Gaza.
Many have claimed that the settlements are illegal according to international law. However, the West Bank is not an “occupied territory.” According to the law of occupation stated in the Fourth Geneva Convention, it is illegal for the “occupying power” to forcibly transfer parts of its population to the occupied area, for the purpose of displacing the current population. Israel has never done that. The settlements have been built up voluntarily, often by citizens looking to return to their previous homes, or to the land once inhabited by their ancestors. No Israelis have been forcibly bussed to the West Bank and commanded to build up settlements.
Underlying every peace talk and negotiation is the understanding that the “final status” of the territories is still undecided. In the interim, until such an agreement is reached regarding the land, the “status quo” remains—the settlements remain under Israeli authority, and the government can continue to allow the building and expansion of the settlements.