A Timeline of Israeli Settlements for Everyone Who Thinks They Don't Matter
The Israeli government announced its plan to release scores of Palestinian prisoners —as a goodwill gesture ahead of today’s resumption of peace talks— while simultaneously giving the go-ahead to build an additional 1,200 new apartments in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The announcement threatens to undercut negotiations before they have any chance for success, and also brings one of the most salient issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the border — again to the forefront.
Jewish settlements in historic Palestine have been at the center of contention between the two communities for over a century, stretching back to the first organized development of Jewish settlements in the late 19th century. The current debate over Jewish settlements in historically Palestinian territories, however, stems from the settlement policies of successive Israeli governments since the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights after the Six-Day War in June of 1967. Since then, Jewish settlements have become symbols: of the rival political views in Israel itself, and of the lasting struggle of Palestine achieving statehood.
In the aftermath Israel's victory the IDF occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights and began a very limited settlement program aimed at establishing a Jewish presence on the strategically vital River Jordan. Many Israelis within the political and military elite believed that most of the territory, except for that deemed vital to securing a defensible national border, would be given back to Arab states in return for peace settlements. But some religious Jewish organizations saw the occupied territories (especially the West Bank), as part of Biblical Israel and pressed for an expansion of the Jewish presence in the territories. Despite the UN Security Council passing Resolution 242 calling for a withdrawal from occupied lands, the Jewish population in the West Bank went from zero to 3,200 people in 24 settlements in 1977.
1977 saw a rapid shift in the Israeli government’s policy towards the settlements. Under Menachem Begin's new government, set about creating a settlement program. The program aimed to ultimately break up major Arab population centers with Jewish settlements with a functional endorsement of the construction and expansion of illegal settlements in addition to the “legal” settlements licensed by the government. To gain control of land for the construction of settlements, the Israeli government declared that unregistered and uncultivated land in the occupied territories would be seized and classified as state land, giving the government direct control over 40% of the West Bank and 30% of the Gaza Strip. This expansion of the settlement program led to a nine-fold increase in the number of settlers living in the occupied territories: 28,400 settlers living in 106 settlements by 1983 when Begin resigned from his position as prime minister.
This trend of legal and illegal settlement expansion continued throughout the 1980s. In 1987, however, a spontaneous popular uprising orchestrated largely by Palestinian youth, now known as the First Intifada, broke out with a number of demands — among them a complete freeze on the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories. General Palestinian despair over the failure of the Palestinian leadership to stop Israeli expansion into Palestinian areas was among the factors that also contributed to the emergence of and support for Hamas, the militant Islamist organization.
In September 1993, the Israeli and Palestinian leadership signed the Oslo Accords, established a framework in which the IDF would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and Jericho within a five-year period in addition, and withdraw from unspecified portions of the West Bank. But the framework left the final status of Israeli settlements in the territories constituting a future Palestinian state to future negotiations. In spite of the signing of the agreement, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ended the freeze on the construction of settlements and seized a further 20,000 acres of Palestinian land in the West Bank between 1993 and 1995.
The assassination of Rabin in 1995 and the subsequent Likud victory in the 1996 elections effectively scuttled the Israeli government’s interest in adhering to the terms of the Oslo Accords. By 1998, 350,000 Israelis resided in the territories occupied during the Six-Day War: 180,000 in East Jerusalem, 164,000 in the West Bank, and 5,500 in the Gaza Strip.
In a last ditch effort to salvage what remained a possibility for a final resolution of the conflict, President Clinton called the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to Camp David in December 2000. While these talks ultimately failed to solve the conflict, they resulted in a new implicit arrangement on the future borders of the Palestinian state while taking into account the settlements that dotted the map of the occupied territories: that the future border would be based on the 1967 (pre-occupation) borders with land swaps to compensate for the settlements.
The issue of settlements famously caused the downfall of yet another round of talks between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas brokered by President Obama in 2010, when Netanyahu refused to freeze settlement construction in East Jerusalem.
The construction of new settlements and the future status of existing settlements are far from being the only roadblocks to a successful conclusion to peace negotiations. And there is considerable disagreement on what defines legality: The international community considers the establishment of settlements in occupied territory a violation of the Geneva Convention, and the Israeli government does not. This considerable disagreement is the only issue that threatens to derail not only these negotiations, but the very possibility for a two-state solution as more and more settlers pour into the occupied territories.