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Settle Down: The Problem With Israeli Settlements in the West Bank

Just how legal are the Israeli settlements in the West Bank?

Dan Peacock

Naked Politics Blogger 

Those interested in the longest running soap-opera in the Middle-East may have noticed that the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has once again hit the news. Instances of violence – including stabbings and arson attack – between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank are on the rise, and in February the UK government controversially made it illegal for public bodies, such as councils and student unions, to boycott companies operating in the Israeli settlements.

But what exactly is all the fuss about? What are Israeli ‘settlements’, and why are they so controversial? To answer this question, a very brief and cursory history lesson is required.

The historical context of Israeli settlements

To begin, we must rewind to 1947. After the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of Jews began emigrating to British-ruled Palestine – the territory we now know as the State of Israel – in order to rebuild their lives after the horrors of the Holocaust. This unprecedented influx of Jews to the region inevitably resulted in tensions with the majority Arab-Palestinian community that already lived there. To resolve this, the UN decided the best solution was to divide the territory into two separate states: an independent Jewish state (Israel) and an independent Arab state (Palestine).

In short, this was a disaster. Civil War broke out between the Jews and Arabs and culminated in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, in which the surrounding Arab states invaded the newly-declared State of Israel. Israel emerged victorious, and the remaining land that had been designated for a Palestinian state – a region in the West that included the Eastern half of Jerusalem known as ‘the West Bank’ and an Eastern coastal strip known as ‘the Gaza Strip’ – and the accompanying fleeing Arab Palestinians fell under the control of Jordan and Egypt respectively. Thus the State of Israel was born. But this was not the end of the story.

Fast forward to 1967, another war broke out between the now adolescent State of Israel and its Arab adversaries. Israel won. Convincingly. After a mere six days, Israel had driven back Arab forces and annexed (the technical legal term for “I’ll ‘ave that”) the previously Arab-controlled West Bank and Gaza Strip. What was originally intended to be Palestinian land was now under the control of Israel. Under international law, this is known as an ‘occupation’. This occupation is still on-going, and is 49 years old and counting.

What are Israeli settlements?

Ever since the Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the government of Israel has orchestrated a directed policy of building Israeli civilian communities, aka ‘settlements’, in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT). This often involves forcibly removing Palestinians from their homes in order to build the new communities. This policy continues in the West Bank to this day. Currently, there are 185 recognised Israeli settlements housing nearly 800,000 Israeli’s. But is this all legal?

In short, no. The settlements violate both Israeli law and international law. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why. In regards to Israeli domestic law, it is illegal for settlements to be built on private land unless it is appropriated for military purposes. Taking Palestinian private property to build settlements on is illegal under Israeli law. It is quite literally theft. It may surprise you hear then that, according to an Israeli Human Rights NGO called ‘Bt’selem’, approximately 21% of the land used to build Israeli settlements was seized from private Palestinian owners. As of 2009, approximately 100 settlements did not meet the legal criteria demanded by Israeli law. Israel denies this of course, and attempts to create numerous legal loopholes in order to exonerate its actions, including claiming the land is needed for ‘military purposes.’ Which is largely nonsense of course. The facts show that Israel is breaking its own law. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!

The settlements are also in violation of international law however. International law is the body of laws created by states via treaties over the course of many decades in order to regulate state behaviour. Violations of international law are a serious business. Of importance in this case is a set of laws called ‘international humanitarian law’ (IHL). IHL is, simply put, the laws that govern the behaviour of states during an armed conflict. They demand that states consider the ‘human’ during their military operations. The laws in question are found in a set of treaties signed in 1949 called the Geneva Conventions. As an inevitable phase of a conflict, occupied territories are governed by IHL. Article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention states the following: “the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” To put it into a simple legal equation: ‘occupied territory + settlements of occupying power civilians = illegal’. It simply could not be clearer. Israeli settlements are a violation of international law. This is a fact. If you don’t want to take my word for it, see what the UN has to say, or the International Court of Justice (The world’s foremost court for settling international disputes).

Conclusion

So, what are ‘Israeli settlements’? They are settlements for Israeli citizens built in the Occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Why are they so controversial? Because they are patently illegal. They are more than illegal though. They are, my view, unethical and wrong on many levels. They are a blatant and abhorrent infringement on the human rights of Palestinians in the West Bank. There is simply no conceivable way in which one can justify or morally absolve the forced displacement of Palestinians to build homes on land which does not belong to Israel. It is obscene. Any UK citizen therefore with a concern for global human rights should be greatly concerned by this practice and should henceforth seriously question the UK’s continued close relationship with the State of Israel.

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