Israeli Settlements

A human rights perspective

by Yehezbel Lein

[Yehezbel Lein is a researcher at B'Tselem: The Israeli Information Center
for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and author of B'Tselem's report entitled Land Grab: Israel's Settlement Policy in the West Bank.]

In Israel and in the forum of international public opinion, the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is almost exclusively perceived as an abstract political concern. The dismantling of settlements is seen only within the framework of "concessions" Israel may be required to make in order to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinian Authority. This approach ignores the ongoing infringement of Palestinian human rights that stems from the establishment of the settlements, their dispersion throughout the West Bank, and their nature as Israeli enclaves that are separated from and closed-off to the Palestinian population.

The built-up areas of the settlements constitute less than 2 percent of the land in the West Bank (1.7 percent). However, the non built-up areas within the municipal boundaries of the settlements are three times as large (5.1 percent) most of which is already planned for construction. In addition, the settlements control another 35 percent of the land in the West Bank, which is under the jurisdiction of six Jewish regional councils (i.e., local government entities that provide services for their member settlements). This 35 percent is not yet planned for construction, but constitutes land reserves for the future expansion of the settlements.

Altogether, since Israel's occupation of the West Bank in 1967, successive Israeli governments have expropriated over 40 percent of the land and transferred it to the control of the settlements. B'Tselem has prepared a map detailing these built-up areas and the land reserved for future development of settlements in the West Bank.

Yet, it is not merely the extensive size of the area controlled by Israeli settlements, but also the specific location of settlements that has resulted in a myriad of human rights violations. A close look at several areas of the West Bank will provide insight into the nature and extent of these violations. With the exception of the Jericho enclave, the entire strip of land along the Jordanian border, including the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea coast, was declared the jurisdictional area of two Jewish regional councils (Arvot Hayarden and Megillot). The fewer than five thousand settlers that live in the Jordan Valley consume a huge portion of the West Bank's water resources for agricultural purposes-equivalent to 75 percent of the consumption of the entire Palestinian population in the West Bank for domestic and urban use. The denial of land and water resources prevents any possibility for the development of Palestinian agriculture. The settlements' control of the Dead Sea coast also prevents the Palestinians from realizing any of the highly valuable economic opportunities in the fields of industry and tourism.

The settlements established on the mountain ridge that runs down the middle of the West Bank, in which some thirty-four thousand settlers reside, have serious implications for the dense Palestinian population living in the area. Most of these settlements were built alongside or adjacent to Road No. 60, which is the main artery connecting the six largest Palestinian cities in the West Bank. The location of these settlements was not accidental, but rather was explicitly intended to prevent the expansion of Palestinian construction toward the road and the connection of Palestinian communities located on opposite sides of it. The presence of Israeli citizens along densely populated, and sometimes hostile, Palestinian areas has led to a significant military presence in order to protect these citizens. During periods of increased violence against settlers, Israel has responded by imposing harsh restrictions on the freedom of movement of the Palestinian population along this key artery. These restrictions disrupt almost every aspect of everyday life for some two million Palestinians and severely infringe on their right to health, employment, family life and education.

The connection between the presence of settlers and restrictions on freedom of movement is even more apparent in places where Road No. 60 passes within the built-up area of Palestinian communities, such as in the towns of Hawara and Silat Ad-Dhaher (south and northwest of Nablus respectively). Since the beginning of the al-Aqsa Intifada, the IDF has frequently imposed prolonged curfews on these towns in order to ensure the freedom of movement of the settlers living in the adjacent settlements.

In the mountain ridge area, settlements block the urban development of the main Palestinian cities. For example, the urban area of Nablus, which includes approximately 158,000 inhabitants in eight villages and two refugee camps contiguous with the city, is surrounded on almost all sides by settlements. The settlements of Brakha and Yitzhar lie to the south of the city, the settlements of Kedumim and Shave Shomron to the west, to the east are the settlements of Elon Moreh and Itamar adjacent to the refugee camps of Askar and Balata, and a military base is located to the north, thus blocking the area's development in all directions.

The strategic location of settlements in different portions of the West Bank also prevents the creation of significant areas with Palestinian territorial contiguity. The most blatant example of this phenomenon is in the western strip adjacent to the Green Line, where dozens of settlements (e.g. Alfe Menashe, Karnei Shomron, and Modi'in Illit) were established following high demand among Israelis for cheap housing solutions, with easy access to the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Due to the presence of these settlements in this area, Israel retained full control of most areas surrounding Palestinian towns and villages following the transfer of powers to the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords. This resulted in the creation of over fifty enclaves of Palestinian autonomous areas (Areas A and B) surrounded by Israeli controlled territory (Area C).

One of the main ramifications of this lack of continuity is that, although powers in the field of planning and construction in Areas A and B were ostensibly transferred to the Palestinian Authority, Israel continues to restrict Palestinian construction in the non-built-up areas belonging to these Palestinian communities and their residents. This geographic reality impedes the possibility of creating an independent and viable Palestinian state, and thus constitutes an infringement on the Palestinians' right to self-determination.

The settlements established in the Jerusalem metropolis (an area that extends far beyond Jerusalem's municipal boundary) have implications both for Palestinian freedom of movement and the right to self-determination. The municipal area of the Ma'ale Adummim settlement-which is the largest off all the Israeli settlements-together with that of three small settlements to the north of it, create a contiguous bloc in the center of the West Bank that extends over some 17,500 acres, from the eastern boundary of Jerusalem to the western outskirts of Jericho. This area is almost fifteen times larger than the current built-up area of these settlements.

This settlement bloc bisects the West Bank. If Ma'ale Adummim is expanded towards the western side of its municipal area as is planned, it will block the main road for Palestinians traveling from Bethlehem to Ramallah (the Wadi An-Nar road). This road is the only remaining route between these cities since Palestinians were prohibited from entering East Jerusalem without a permit in 1993. This development would imply a further severing of the Occupied Territories into four territorial entities: the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the southern portion of the West Bank and the northern portion of the West Bank. Similarly, the presence of the settlement of Ariel obliges Israel to control a long corridor leading to the settlement (the Trans-Samaria Highway). This corridor extends from the Green Line almost to Road No. 60, severing the contiguity of Palestinian territory in the north of the West Bank, which is a densely populated area.

The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians that took place during the 1990s completely failed to address the issue of settlements. As this process unfolded, settlements continued to rapidly expand; not a single settlement was dismantled. In addition to this physical expansion, the population of the settlements grew as well. While the population of the settlements in the West Bank (including settlements in East Jerusalem) totaled some 247,000 at the end of 1993 (when the Declaration of Principles was signed), by the end of 2001 this figure had risen to 380,000. The failure of the peace process and the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000 are complex phenomena that resulted from many factors. Israeli settlements were undoubtedly a primary contributing element. In fact, an understanding of the growth and expansion of the settlements and their implications for the human rights of Palestinians is essential for understanding virtually everything taking place today in the West Bank, and must be taken into account in all future attempts to advance peace in the region.

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