Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as an obstacle to peace

Over half a million people live in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The settlements are considered illegal under international law and undermine the possibility of reaching a two-state solution. The settlement policy also causes human suffering in nearby Palestinian communities.

The European Union supports a two-state solution for independent states of Israel and Palestine based on the 1967 borders. To this end, the EU has repeatedly raised concerns about developments threatening the possibility of the two-state solution. Notably, the settlement expansion is considered as one of the main challenges to achieving peace.
According to the statement by EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy published on 1 June 2019, “[t]he European Union is strongly opposed to Israel’s settlement policy, including in East Jerusalem, which is illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace”. The statement followed the publication of Israeli authorities of tenders for over 800 settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem.

Over half a million people living in the settlements

Israeli settlements are civilian communities, consisting of Israeli and foreign citizens, built on the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967. According to a report on Israeli settlements by the Office of the European Union Representative, by the end of 2018 there were approximately 413,000 Israeli citizens living in Area C in the occupied West Bank and an additional 215,000 Israelis living in East Jerusalem, which has been unilaterally annexed to the Israeli territory since the 1967 Six-Day War.
The same report notes that this population of over 600,000 people lives in 143 settlement locations in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as in 106 outposts. Whereas under international law all Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are considered illegal, outposts lack an authorization from the Israeli government and are therefore illegal also according to Israeli law.
Motives to move into settlements wary from ideological – religious or political – reasons to economic incentives. Housing in the settlements in the West Bank may be considerably cheaper than in Israel. Furthermore, the Israeli government encourages the population growth through benefits in housing, taxes and education in addition to supporting the development of public services and different kinds of economic activities in settlements.

Illegality of settlements under international law

The Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are in breach of international law. In line with international humanitarian law, occupation ought to be of a temporary nature and following this principle, the occupying power is not allowed to transfer its own civilian population to the occupied territories as stipulated by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Furthermore, it is forbidden for the military authority to confiscate private property of the occupied territories.
The illegality of the settlements has been reaffirmed by the United Nations on several occasions. Notably, the UN Security Council Resolution 2334 (2016) states that the establishment of the Israeli settlements on territories occupied by Israel since 1967 have “no legal validity and constitute[s] a flagrant violation under international law”.
Also, the resolution 70/89 of the UN General Assembly reaffirmed that the Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory are illegal. The resolution further called upon Israel to “cease immediately all actions causing the alteration of the character, status and demographic composition”. Under the Rome Statute, the transfer of civilian population of the occupying power into the occupied territory amounts to a war crime.
Also the European Union has condemned the Israeli settlements as an illegal practice under international law. In 2017 the European Parliament called on the Israeli authorities to “immediately halt and reserve” the settlement policy.

Impacts of the settlement policy on Palestinian communities

Palestinian communities living close to existing or planned settlements are negatively affected by the settlement policy. Notably, settlement expansion may result in forcible transfers of population and demolition of houses, schools and other structures in Palestinian communities. Land may be initially seized “for military purposes” and later used for building settlements.
Furthermore, living conditions are difficult and future prospects limited for Palestinians living in area C which is fully controlled by the Israeli military and civilian administration and which covers 60 % of the West Bank. Building permits are rarely issued and access to services is limited. People may also face severe humanitarian challenges due to the shortage of water, electricity and sewage systems.
The settlement policy results also in further restrictions on movement and access to livelihood. Some roads in the West Bank are limited to the use of people living in settlements while roadblocks and checkpoints control the movement of Palestinians. Furthermore, many landowners have difficulties accessing their farmland behind the separation barrier.
In close proximity to settlements, the security measures are high and the presence of the Israeli military is typically strong. Fully armed soldiers guard daily certain Palestinian elementary and secondary schools as a response to alleged or potential stone throwing towards cars coming from settlements.
In case of any security incident, a collective punishment is often applied and night raids and child detentions are carried out frequently in Palestinian villages and refugee camps. The Israeli army also practices different kinds of military operations on Palestinian villages and houses. If clashes occur for instance during demonstrations, the use of force is not always justified or proportionate, which has resulted in many Palestinian deaths and injuries.

Settlements undermine a two-state solution

The European Union supports a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine based on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states. To this end, the EU has repeatedly stated its objection to any actions undermining “the viability of the two-state solution”. Settlements are explicitly mentioned as such action and are therefore considered as an obstacle to peace.
Having a growing number of Israeli citizens living in the occupied territories, that would be part of Palestine on the basis of the 1967 borders, constitutes indeed a severe obstacle for peace negotiations. In practice, implementing the two-state solution would mean transferring over half a million Israeli citizens from the occupied territories to Israel which is not politically realistic in Israel. Moreover, the altered demographic realities in the West Bank are likely to affect the future negotiation positions and expectations from the Israeli side in the peace talks.
On the other hand, the continuing settlement expansion also has a damaging effect on international legal principles. Although the settlement policy is inarguably in violation of international law and has been condemned by the UN and the EU, the settlement expansion has still continued for decades.
TEXT Suvi Moilanen
PHOTO Suvi Moilanen

The author has a Master’s degree in European Law and has a particular interest in human rights issues and the EU external relations.