On his way to the UN summit in New York, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon said to reporters, “Building is continuing there [West Bank settlements]; we will build as much as we need.” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz proclaimed the day before, “We have to make every effort to direct resources to the development of the settlement blocs.” While the media portrays dismantling Gaza settlements as an Israeli concession to the Palestinians, scant attention has been focused on the real problem—that the whole settlement enterprise pursued by successive Israeli governments since 1967 is illegal. Israeli withdrawal of settlements from Gaza is partial compliance with international law, not a concession.
From the outset of its occupation, the government of Israel has deliberately settled its citizens in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip despite the clear prohibition of this action under the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party. Israel has constructed a legal shroud to shield its settlement policy from criticism by maintaining that these territories are not occupied but were “liberated” or are “disputed,” despite international consensus and decisions by Israel’s High Court to the contrary.
The Labor Party’s Allon Plan of 1968, followed by the Likud Party’s Drobless plan of 1977, steered Israel’s settlement policy towards controlling the land and retaining strategic areas, breaking-up contiguous Palestinian population areas and preempting Palestinian self-determination. Although Israel’s evacuation of 8,000 settlers provides territorial contiguity within Gaza, its ongoing expansion of 45 settlements within the West Bank indicates a continuation of these same objectives.
Israel has institutionalized its settlement project by creating government departments and “lawful” procedures for construction of settlements. Israeli ministries are involved in almost all steps, from confiscating Palestinian land to developing and approving the physical and economic infrastructure, issuing tenders for building, and constructing roads for settlers. Some settlers, often driven by religious belief in their divine right to the land, establish outposts outside the “lawful” settlement zone and subsequently secure government authorization.
However, the majority of Israeli settlers are lured to occupied territory by promises of subsidies from six government ministries for those living in areas formally designated by the Israeli cabinet as a “national priority.” To date, the Israeli government has sunk approximately $10 billion into building settlements.
While expanding settlements Israel simultaneously contains Palestinian development. It unlawfully confiscates property, denies Palestinians the right to register their land and restricts Palestinian growth to limited areas, thereby reserving available land for settlement expansion. In order to ensure Israeli citizens have access to their settlements, Palestinians face restrictions on movement, including 600 physical barriers on West Bank roads, and endure long waits at checkpoints.
Settlements are constructed under Israeli military or private security protection. Israel’s Ministry of Defense provides weapons to settlers, which are then used by militants to harass Palestinians into vacating their land. Reports on settler violence by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, document that settlers fear little or no retribution from Israeli law enforcement because of a history of superficial investigations—only 8 percent of Palestinian complaints are probed—and light sentencing or pardons for the few settlers ever convicted. The same reports note that Israeli military and police often do not intervene to prevent attacks although they are present at the time.
It is neither surprising nor new that some settlers resort to violence. They are the product of their carefully constructed environment. Their presence in occupied territory is founded on illegality, maintained through the unlawful use of force, and sustained by subjugating the rights of Palestinians. Israel’s policies, rather than ensuring respect for law, have only reinforced the belief among settlers that they rightfully possess the West Bank and Gaza.
Just last year the International Court of Justice, the highest judicial organ of the United Nations, unanimously confirmed that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are occupied and therefore Israeli settlements are illegal. Ariel Sharon responded by saying the Court was one sided. Israel does its citizens no favor by maintaining legal fictions and pumping millions of dollars into settlements every year. The evacuation of a handful of settlements is a good start, now let’s see the dismantling of the rest.