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Israel’s settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territory

View over an Israeli settlement in the West Bank
Overlooking the illegal Israeli settlement of Shiloh in the West Bank. Photo: Skip Schiel / AFSC


Israel’s policy of building settlements in occupied territory is one of the core issues in the conflict.  Illegal under international law, settlements are built on confiscated or stolen Palestinian land, are one of the core justifications for the building of the wall and the restriction of Palestinian movement within the West Bank, contribute to forced displacement, severely limit Palestinian access to basic resources including land and water, and perpetuate a system of segregation and legal and structural inequality between Palestinians and Israelis.  Understanding Israel’s settlement policy and its impacts is important to understanding what continues to drive the conflict. 

This paper provides background information on this policy.  

What is a Settlement?         

Settlements are illegal Jewish-only communities built by Israel for its citizens on territories it occupied in 1967. According to B’Tselem there are 124 official settlements[1] in the West Bank[i] with approximately 350,000 residents in 2013.[ii]  Official settlements are all authorized by the Israeli government, have approved planning schemes, and receive the same benefits and services as towns within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.  

In addition to official settlements there are approximately 100 “outpost” settlements located throughout the West Bank. These communities are built without official approval from the Israeli government, but with financial support from Israeli government ministries and agencies.  Although even the Israeli government recognizes these communities as illegal, it provides most "outposts” with state funded protection and access to water, electricity, and other basic services.  Together, settlements and outposts control approximately 42% of the total land area of the West Bank.[iii] 

There are an additional 14 official settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.[iv]  Conservative estimates place the settler population in east Jerusalem at just over 200,000 people, although recent estimates indicate that as many as 300,000 settlers may live in East Jerusalem.[v] 

Post 1967 Israel also established 17 settlements in Gaza, but these settlements were dismantled in 2005.  Israeli communities established in the Syrian occupied Golan after 1967 are also considered illegal settlements under international law.   

What is the legal status of Israeli settlements?

The establishment of settlements by an occupying power in occupied territory violates international humanitarian law which is the body of law governing situations of armed conflict and military occupation.  Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention[vi] explicitly prohibits an “Occupying Power” (Israel) from transferring any part of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.  The Hague Convention of 1907[vii] also prohibit occupying powers from making any permanent changes in the territories they occupy that are not undertaken in accordance with a narrow definition of military necessity or for the purpose of benefiting the local population.  Israeli settlements established in the Occupied Palestinian Territory are a clear violation of both sets of law and agreement on settlements illegality is the consensus position of the international community including the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States government.

Did the peace process stop or slow settlement construction?

It has often been stated that the premise of the Oslo “Peace Process” was an exchange of “Land for Peace.“  Regardless of questions about whether this was ever an adequate premise from which to build a just and lasting peace, given the centrality of control over land to the negotiating process it is reasonable to expect that the peace process should have required a complete halt to all Israeli settlement expansion and land confiscation.  However, the reality is the opposite.  Settlements grew exponentially after the Oslo Accords were signed.  Even during the so called “settlement freeze” in 2010 construction activity in settlements continued without interruption.[viii]

In 1993 when the Oslo accords were signed there were approximately 110,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and 146,000 living in East Jerusalem.  In 2013 there were approximately 350,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and as many as 300,000 living in East Jerusalem.  Building the facilities needed to accommodate this increased population has led to massive settlement construction in both areas.  In its 2010 report “By Hook and By Crook: Israeli Settlement Policy in the West Bank”, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem provides information on three Israeli settlements (Modi'in Illit, Betar Illit, and Ma’ale Adummin) which makes clear the link between settlement growth and land confiscation.   

"The built up areas of all three settlements expanded significantly from 2001 to 2009, and their populations rose substantially.  The built-up area of Modi’in Illit expanded by 78 percent, from 1,287 to 2,290 dunum; the built-up area of Betar Illit rose by 55 percent, from 1,270 to 1,975 dunam; and in Ma'ale Adummin, the built-up area increased by 34 percent, from 2,500 to 2,342 dunam.”[ix]

The land area controlled by these settlements but not built up also expanded greatly during this same period.  Some of the land confiscated for these and other settlements does come from areas that are unpopulated, but much of the land taken for settlements is stolen from Palestinian owners who are never compensated.  For example, Ma'ale Adummin is built on land taken from the Palestinian communities of Abu Dis, Al-Eizariya, At-Tur, Issawiyeh, Khan Al-Ahmar, Anata, and Nebi Musa.  Betar Illit is built on land confiscated from Wadi Fukin, Nahhalin, and Husan, and Modi’in Illit is built on land taken from the Palestinian villages of Ni'lin, Harbata, Saffa, Bil'in, and Der Qadis. 

Case Study: Har Homa

Prior to 1996, Jabal Abu Ghneim (Abu Ghneim Hill) was a forested oasis and a popular picnic destination for Palestinian families from Bethlehem and its surrounding villages.  In 1996 Israel began constructing the settlement of Har Homa on Jabal Abu Ghneim, and soon thereafter all of the trees that had covered the hill were gone and Palestinians were banned from entering the area.  Today, approximately 15,000 Jewish Israeli settlers live in Har Homa.   The settlement serves as a buffer for Israel, cutting off Palestinian east Jerusalem from Bethlehem and the West Bank and, if connected to other Jerusalem area settlements such as Gilo and Ma’aleh Adumim, effectively severing the northern and southern West Bank.  Although Har Homa did not exist in 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed, during past negotiations Israel has demanded that this area be ceded to it and this demand (which Palestinians have refused) has become one of the major issues blocking a peace agreement.[1] 

Are there benefits to living in or opening a business in a settlement?

Israeli citizens are heavily incentivized by the Israeli government to move to settlements.  Included below are a few examples of some of the many benefits provided to settlers and settlements by the Israeli government.[x]    

  • Housing – In 2013 90 settlements were considered “National Priority Areas”.  As a result up to 69% of the cost of purchasing land in these settlements is subsidized by the government as are infrastructure development costs associated with building a new unit in these settlements.  Government grants of up to NIS 97,000 (approximately $25,000) are also available to prospective home buyers in these communities.  Other benefits include preferential mortgage terms and subsidized utilities.
  • Education – Settlement schools receive higher levels of funding than schools inside Israel.  Teachers in settlements receive higher salaries than those working inside Israel.  Free education in settlements begins at age 3 rather than at age 4 as is the case inside Israel.  Student transportation and testing costs are subsidized for settler children, and settler youth are prioritized in university scholarship decision making processes. 
  • Business – Israel has established approximately 13 industrial areas in or near settlements in the West Bank.  The building of these areas has been heavily subsidized by the government.  Leasing fees for land in these areas is heavily subsidized and businesses in settlements are given preferential access to research grants, assistance with hiring, and income tax breaks.  Business and labor practices in Settlement industrial areas are virtually unregulated, and abuses of Palestinian workers’ rights including the denial of benefits and underpayment are common practices.[xi]   

How do settlements perpetuate inequality, discrimination, and violence in the occupied Palestinian territory?

While Palestinian communities and settlements are physically located side by side, they exist in what Human Rights Watch has called a “two tier system of laws, rules, and services... which provide preferential services, development, and benefits for Jewish settlers while imposing harsh conditions on Palestinians."[xii]  Below are several examples of inequalities of how settlements and settlers contribute to inequality, discrimination, and violence in the occupied Palestinian territory. 

Separate Legal Regimes – Although Palestinians and settlers in the West Bank live in the same geographic area, they live under separate and unequal legal systems.  As Israeli citizens, settlers are provided with all of the rights afforded by Israeli civil and criminal laws.  However, their Palestinian neighbors are subject to Israeli military law.[xiii]  Some of the differences between the two systems include the following.

  • A settler arrested in the West Bank and accused of a crime must be brought before a judge within 24 hours.  A Palestinian arrested in the West Bank can be held for up to 8 days without being brought before a judge. 
  • A settlers’ period of detention can be extended for periods of up to 15 days up to a total of 30 days.  A Palestinians’ periods of detention can be extended for 30 days and up to 90 days total. 
  • The settler must be provided with immediate access to legal counsel.   Palestinians can be denied access to legal counsel for up to 90 days.
  • Acts that are illegal for Palestinians as a result of military orders, i.e. driving a tractor without a special permit or picking wild thyme, are not illegal for settlers. 

Discriminatory Movement RestrictionAccording to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of September 2012 there were at least 542 obstacles to Palestinian movement in the West Bank.  These include roadblocks, gates, checkpoints, segregated roads, and other obstacles.  Most of the movement restrictions in the West Bank are put in places to specifically restrict Palestinian access to roads used by settlers or to areas near or controlled by settlements.  While Palestinian movement is severely restricted, a separate system of roads that are closed to Palestinians or that bypass Palestinian communities has been set up for Settlers to ensure their unrestricted movement in the West Bank and between the West Bank and Israel.[xiv] 

Unequal Access to Water – Israel controls all water resources in the West Bank and decides how much water is provided to Palestinians.  The West Bank settler population (including East Jerusalem) consumes approximately six times more water than the entire Palestinian West Bank population of 2.6 million.  The 9,000 settlers in the Jordan Valley alone use up to one quarter of the total amount of water consumed by Palestinians in the West Bank.[xv]   

In the West Bank approximately 313,000 Palestinians are not connected to any water network and are at high risk of water scarcity.  An additional 50,000 Palestinians live on less than 20 liters per capita daily.  This is the minimum amount of water recommended by the World Health Organization for short term survival in an emergency situation.  At the same time, many settlement outposts in the West Bank which even the Israeli government has said are illegal are connected to the Israeli government run water network.[xvi] 

Restrictions on Building and Community Growth – Of the more than 150 Palestinian communities in Area C of the West Bank, only 18 have town planning schemes of which only 2 were developed with input from local residents.  All of these planning schemes limit building to only a few restricted areas.  Building or renovation in areas without planning schemes is illegal.  Even in areas where plans are set, over 94% of requests for construction permits are rejected.  Construction or repair work on any building carried out by Palestinians without a permit results in the issuance of a demolition order by the Israeli military.

All settlements are also located in Area C.  Official settlements all have planning schemes in place and building in these communities moves forward with full government support.  Despite the existence of planning schemes, Settlers often build homes, roads, and other infrastructure without permits or in unplanned areas.  In most cases this illegal building is approved retroactively.  The more than 100 outpost settlements in the West Bank are all built without permits or plans, but rarely receive demolition orders.  In the few instances when outposts have been ordered demolished, the Israeli government has supported settlers’ efforts to delay or halt demolitions using the courts, and after outposts have been demolished settlers are usually allowed to immediately rebuild their illegal structures.[xvii]

Settler Violence – Over the last several years the number of violent attacks on Palestinians and their property by settlers has grown significantly.  In 2011 UN OCHA recorded 121 violent attacks by settler on Palestinians.  These attacks resulted in 3 deaths and 183 injuries.  In 2012 there were 98 attacks by settlers on Palestinians resulting in 150 injuries.  During 2011 and 2012 there were also 558 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinian property.[xviii]  These actions include vandalism, theft of property, blocked access to land, destruction of crops, burning fields, cutting down olive trees, killing livestock, and attacks on homes and mosques.  Over 90%  of UN monitored complaints regarding settler violence filed by Palestinians with the Israeli Police were closed without indictment.[xix]   

How are corporations complicit in Israel’s settlement policy?

Although the settlement enterprise is primarily supported and financed by the Israeli government, settlements are also built, protected, and supported by a variety of Israeli and international corporations.   Several of the corporations that support or do business in settlements are listed below.

  • Ahava – Ahava is an Israeli cosmetics manufacturer which was founded and is base in the illegal settlement Mitzpe Shalem.  Ahava uses mud and minerals taken from areas of the Dead Sea located in the occupied Palestinian territory in its products.
  • Motorola Solutions – The government contracting arm of the multi-national Motorola Corporation, Motorola Solutions provides security systems (including its Moto-Eagle Surveillance system) to at least 25 West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.
  • Sodastream – The main manufacturing facility for Sodastream Inc.’s home carbonation machines is located in the settlement industrial zone of Mishor Adumim which is attached to the Ma’aleh Adummim settlement.
  • Veolia – The French multi-national corporation Veolia operated the Tovlan Landfill in the Jordan Valley, which is located on stolen Palestinian land and services the majority of illegal Settlements in the West Bank. It also operates the Ayalon Sewage Treatment Institute which provides sewage services to the Modi'in Ilit settlement.  Finally, through its subsidiary Trasdev, Veolia operates segregated bus lines that service Israeli settlements but not Palestinian communities in the West Bank.   

What can you do?      

Support boycott and divestment campaigns targeting companies that support settlements: Ahava, Sodastream, Motorola and Veolia are all the targets of active boycott and divestment campaigns.  Support these campaigns which aim to end corporate support for Israel’s settlement policy and thereby contribute to ending settlement growth and construction.  More information on these campaigns can be found here:

Call on the US to enforce its policy opposing settlements: The US government officially opposes Israel’s continued settlement policy and recognizes the illegality of all Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory.  However, the US has taken no steps to pressure Israel to stop building and expanding settlements.  Take action by encouraging your representatives to support policies that:

  • Develop new U.S. policies that replicates the recently released EU Guidelines on assistance to Israel which ban the provision of grants, prizes and funding to all Israeli entities operating in the occupied Palestinian territory and the Golan Heights and that recognize Israeli sovereignty as extending only up to its pre-1967 borders. 
  • Forbid the granting of tax exempt status to organizations whose primary purpose is to support the building or growth of Israeli settlements.
  • Enforce a labeling system for items produced in or by Israeli settlements to distinguish settlement products from goods produced within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.  Settlement goods should also be excluded from all preferential trade agreements signed between the United States and Israel.
  • Withhold all government assistance to Israel until the Israeli government halts all settlement activities in the West Bank including East Jerusalem.

Learn More

The following organizations in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel address and challenge Israel’s settlement policy.

Al-Haq -

Badil -

The Jerusalem Legal and and Human Rights Center -

The Civic Coalition for Defending Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem -

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs -

B’Tselem -

Bimkom -

Ir Amin

About AFSC

Since 1948, AFSC has worked in the US, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territory with Palestinians, Israelis, and other committed activists to support nonviolence, challenge oppression, and (since 1970) to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. This work is guided our “Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel”[xx]. These principles support the implementation of international human rights and humanitarian law and call for an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, implementation of refugees’ right of return, equality, and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.