What is a settlement?

Background on the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and their impact on Palestinian human rights.

Israeli settlements are segregated enclaves built only for Israeli Jews on Palestinian land in the West Bank.

After the Six-Day War of June 1967, Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It eventually annexed East Jerusalem, claiming it as part of the state of Israel, although no country recognizes this annexation.

Only a few years after its capture of the West Bank, Israel began to build settlements for Jewish Israelis in the captured territory.

This map shows how the settlements have spread to nearly all areas of the West Bank.

Are the Settlements Illegal?

The settlements are contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention, an international law that prohibits a country from transferring its population into occupied territory. Australia has stated before the UN Security Council on two occasions in 2011 and 2012, that Israeli settlement activity was illegal and a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, noting that Israel is a party to this convention.

Settlements by the Numbers

Unsettling Goods Infographic: Growth in SettlersData source: Foundation for Middle East Peace

ABCs of the West Bank

The Oslo Accords, a peace agreement signed in 1993 and 1995 by the Palestinians and Israelis, were to provide a framework for lasting peace. Under these Accords, the West Bank was temporarily divided up into Areas A, B, and C:

Unsettling Goods Infographic: ABCs of the West BankData source: B’Tselem

  • Area A: 18% of the West Bank — full Palestinian control
  • Area B: 21% of the West Bank — Palestinian/Israeli shared control
  • Area C: 61% of the West Bank — full Israeli control

This UN map shows the areas.

The Oslo peace accords stated that, in Area C, "powers and responsibilities related to the sphere of Planning and Zoning will be transferred gradually to Palestinian jurisdiction" by 1999. For various reasons this has not happened, and Israel has used its control of Area C to significantly expand the size and number of settlements, as this chart shows.

Settlements and a Palestinian State

For many years various international players, such as the United States, as well as many Israeli leaders, have indicated their support for a Palestinian state. However, Area C in the West Bank, which chops up the areas currently controlled by Palestinians, makes it difficult to conceive of a viable, contiguous country for Palestinians. As Israel engages in settlement expansion in Area C—which includes Israeli-only roads, fences, and checkpoints—the possibility for two states living side by side in peace becomes ever more remote.

A freeze on all settlement expansion is crucial. While Israel did remove its settlements from Gaza in 2005—proving, some would say, that the dismantling of settlements is possible—the size and scope of the settlements in the West Bank is very different. The larger they become, the more difficult it will be to remove or abandon them.

Although the Israeli government instituted a partial freeze on building new settlements in 2009, this "freeze" has been lifted, and over the course of 2012 the government announced plans for significant settlement expansion.

What Do Settlements Look Like?

Settlements range from a cluster of a few trailers and tents to small cities.

Unsettling Goods: Settlement ComparisonLeft: Ma'ale Adumim, the third-largest settlement in the West Bank (2011 population: 39,000), is located east of Jerusalem. Right: Israeli settlement.
Photo Credit: Left: ActiveStills.org, Right: delayed gratification, Flickr

What the International Community Has Said about Settlements

Settlements are absolutely no excuse for violence, no they are not, and we are clear about that. But the continued settlement growth raises honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions and will only make separating from the Palestinians much more difficult,”

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, December 2015.

“Progress towards peace requires a freeze of Israel’s settlement enterprise. Continued settlement activities are an affront to the Palestinian people and to the international community. They rightly raise fundamental questions about Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (Jan, 2016)

The stagnation of the peace process cannot be attributed to a single factor. However, one of the main reasons—I would say the decisive one—is Israel's incessant settlement policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem…it threatens the viability of the two-state solution and thus the very feasibility of peace."

Hans van den Broek, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and former EU Commissioner for External Relations (October 2012)

Learn More

To learn more about settlements, follow these video links: