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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.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff Writer / September 15, 2009

Going up: A Palestinian laborer works on a Jewish settler's future home at Maale Michmas in the West Bank. Some inhabit settlements for patriotic or religious reasons, others say they seek a communal or rural lifestyle.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

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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.

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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.