Israeli settlements: Where, when, and why they're built
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US envoy George Mitchell failed to agree on a settlement freeze Tuesday, saying they would meet again Wednesday.
Amid rising anticipation of a US-Israeli agreement on a settlement freeze, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US envoy George Mitchell said they would meet again Wednesday after an inconclusive visit Tuesday in Jerusalem.Skip to next paragraph
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With one week until the United Nations General Assembly opens in New York, the contested issue has taken on new urgency. President Barack Obama, whose administration has strongly encouraged a settlement freeze as a way to jumpstart Arab-Israeli peace talks, seeks to meet Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the UN gathering. But Mr. Abbas has refused to resume negotiations before Israel agrees to a total freeze.
Netanyahu, under pressure from his right-wing constituents not to succumb to Washington's demands, last week approved permits for 455 new housing units to be built in the settlements – bringing to nearly 3,000 the number of homes his government would likely exclude from any settlement freeze.
Originally encouraged by the government after Israel expanded its territory in the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors, settlements were meant to seed Israeli "pioneers" and to extend the Jewish state's defenses. Now numbering 121, their purpose and legality draw varying definitions and fuel relentless debate.
This Monitor briefing examines those definitions, explains the varying interpretations of international law, and looks at the trends in settlement growth over the past few decades.
What is a settlement?
A settlement is any residential area built over the Green Line, the 1949 cease-fire line established between the newly established Jewish state and its Arab neighbors. Today, Israelis live in several key areas that Israel took control of in the 1967 Six-Day War: the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Syria's Golan Heights.
As a key part of his Middle East policy, President Barack Obama has insisted that Israel freeze settlement expansion as a confidence-building gesture to help relaunch Middle East peace talks. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not commence negotiations with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unless he halts settlement growth first. Arab governments have also made a withdrawal to 1967 borders a prerequisite to making peace with Israel.
The main focus is on settlements in the West Bank, where Israeli pockets give the mainly Palestinian territory a Swiss-cheese look (see map). Palestinians and their supporters describe settlements as "facts on the ground" that will force the hand of future negotiators determining the borders of a Palestinian state.
How many are there?
From 30 in the early 1970s, West Bank settlements now number 121, and the settler population there this year surpassed 300,000. An additional 17,000 Israelis live in the Golan Heights and 193,000 in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to establish the capital of their future state. (Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 and thus does not consider citizens there settlers, but most international and human rights organizations do.)
Formerly, 8,000 settlers lived in the Gaza Strip, but they were evacuated in 2005 under former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. According to figures from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics and the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) in Washington, the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza has increased three times faster, on average, than the population within Israel proper since the 1993 Oslo peace accords were signed. Last year, the growth rate was 4.9 percent in the West Bank compared with 1.8 percent in Israel.