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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.

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Since the Oslo Accords, Israel has also ramped up construction of roads serving settlements. Many are only intended to service settlements and not neighboring Palestinian villages. Btselem, an Israeli rights group, says that some of these new roads are forbidden to Palestinian traffic.

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Are they illegal?

The United Nations considers the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights occupied territory; Israel considers them territories under its administration and officially refers to the West Bank by the biblical names Judea and Samaria. Much of the international community also does not recognize Israel's annexation in 1967 of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, which it declared its "complete and united" capital.

Palestinians and many international organizations say that on the basis of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the settlements are a serious violation of international law. Article 49 says that the occupying power "shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." Israel holds that the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights are territories acquired in a defensive war, and that Geneva conventions are not applicable to the dispute: Settlers have not been moved there by force nor transferred en masse. Israel also says that the transfer of major West Bank cities to Palestinian Authority control means that the area should no longer be considered occupied.

There are settlements that Israeli officials do consider to be illegal, however. Known as outposts, they are established without any government permission, usually on the fringes of larger settlements. Peace Now, an antisettlement group, counts 100 outposts. Around 50 were established after March 2001, when Sharon came to office and promised the US he would stop the growth of outposts, according to a government-commissioned study known as the Sasson Report. Among these, 24 are on a list of illegal settlement outposts scheduled to be dismantled by the Israeli government.

What obligations does Israel have?

The previous two Israeli prime ministers – Sharon and Ehud Olmert – promised to remove those 23 outposts in talks with the Bush administration. Mr. Netanyahu has repeated that pledge.

Since coming to power in March, the Netanyahu government put a de facto freeze on issuing tenders for new housing in the settlements until Sept. 6, when it approved permits for an additional 455 units. The approximately 2,500 issued previously would allow developers to move ahead once they are ready – potentially increasing by tens of thousands the number of housing units under construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which currently stands at 1,000, according to Peace Now. Moreover, government-sponsored construction constitutes about 40 percent of all construction in the territories, Peace Now says, with the rest funded by private initiatives and settler groups.