Settlements were never an obstacle to peace - opinion

Over the past few months, Israel has received condemnation by several countries for proposing to construct new settlements in the West Bank.

 A BUILDING SITE in Efrat. All of the projects that have been approved for Area C’s Jewish sector are on land that has already been slated for expansion of existing communities. (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
A BUILDING SITE in Efrat. All of the projects that have been approved for Area C’s Jewish sector are on land that has already been slated for expansion of existing communities.
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

Over the past few months, Israel has received condemnation by several countries for proposing to construct new settlements in the West Bank. Those issuing these condemnations claim that settlements are a major obstacle to achieving peace. However, both history and the realities on the ground demonstrate that this is not the case. 

Even prior to Israel’s entrance into the West Bank and construction of settlements therein, there was no peace between Israel and its neighbors. After the 1948-1949 Arab-Israeli War, Israel and Jordan entered into an armistice agreement on April 3, 1949. Article 2 of the agreement stipulated that the armistice line (also referred to as the “Green Line”) between the two countries would not serve as an internationally recognized border. The following year, Jordan annexed the territory on its side of the armistice line, which it had illegally occupied during the war.

Under Jordanian control, Jews were not permitted to live in the West Bank. Despite there being no Israeli presence in this territory and the fact that there were armistice agreements between Israel and its neighbors, there were many threats issued toward Israel and outbreaks of violence.

For instance, the PLO, whose stated goal was the destruction of Israel, was established three years prior to Israel’s entrance into the West Bank. Moreover, between 1949-1967, more than 450 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks. Clashes between Israel and its neighbors continued and reached a boiling point in 1967 with the outbreak of the Six Day War.

During the war, Israel managed to capture the West Bank from Jordan, along with capturing the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. In 1968, Israel would begin construction of communities (also referred to as “settlements”) in the territories it captured.

  Protest against Israeli settlements in Beita, January 7, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/RANEEN SAWAFTA) Protest against Israeli settlements in Beita, January 7, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/RANEEN SAWAFTA)

Despite the presence of these settlements, Israel still managed to enter into political negotiations and agreements in attempts to achieve peace. For instance, the presence of Israeli settlements in the Sinai Peninsula and prime minister Menachem Begin’s desire to build more settlements in the West Bank did not prevent Israel and Egypt from reaching a peace deal.

From the 1980s to the 1990s, there was a significant increase in the number of settlements. However, this did not preclude Israel from signing a peace treaty with Jordan. More significantly, the significant increase in settlements did not prevent the PLO from signing the Declaration of Principles in 1993 or the 1995 Interim Agreement.

These two agreements, which together have come to be known as the Oslo Accords, never banned settlement construction. Furthermore, the PLO kept negotiating with Israel during the 1990s while the settlement population continued to grow and entered into final-status negotiations with Israel at Camp David in 2000.

At Camp David, former prime minister Ehud Barak offered to dismantle a large number of the settlements but the offer was rejected by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.

A contemporary complaint asserted by those who believe that settlements undercut peace efforts is that there would not be enough land for a contiguous Palestinian state. This assertion falls flat when looking at the reality on the ground. During the Oslo Accords, Israel and the PLO agreed to divide the West Bank into three different regions.

Areas A and B are under PLO civil administration and Area C is administered by Israel. Area C is where all of the Israeli settlements are located and is a sparsely populated and  mostly vacant land. Area C also makes up around 60% of the land mass of the West Bank. Currently, the built-up areas of Israeli settlements comprise less than 2% of the entire territory of the West Bank.

This was confirmed by the late Palestinian Authority negotiations department head Saeb Erekat in a June 25, 2009 interview with the Jordanian daily Al-Dustour, where he said, “[PA head Mahmoud] Abbas told [former prime minister Ehud Olmert] that, according to the map that he had obtained from a friendly country, the settlements that have been built to date occupy 1.2% of the West Bank.” 

Today, approximately 80% of Israeli settlements inside the West Bank are within close proximity to the Green Line and are considered suburbs of major cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In fact, around  two-thirds of the settlement population live in just five settlement blocs, which are commonly  referred to as the “consensus settlements.”

The consensus settlement blocs are the large settlements that are nearly certain to become part of Israel after the final borders are determined. The settlement blocs that make up the consensus settlements include Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Betar Illit, Givat Ze’ev, Modi’in Illit, and Ariel, all of which, with the exception of the latter, are within a short distance of the Green Line.

The consensus settlements and other settlements close to the Green Line could easily be incorporated into Israel, which would allow for the maximum number of settlers to remain while incorporating the least possible amount of territory beyond the Green Line.

Furthermore, Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip illustrates that settlements were never an obstacle to peace. In August 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, which involved forcibly removing the 8,500 Israelis from the 21 settlements located in that territory.

Although it was believed that removing the settlements there would help in advancing peace, the exact opposite happened. In 2007, Hamas, a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction, took control of the Gaza Strip. Since then, tens of thousands of rockets have been fired at Israel with the intent of harming Israel’s citizens. 

It is for these reasons that Israeli settlements have never been an obstacle to peace.

The writer is a lawyer at Rudolph Clarke and a graduate of the Widener University School of Law.