Settlements are Jewish communities established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after these territories came under Israeli military control at the end of the 1967 War. In 2005, all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip were uprooted as part of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. As of 2013 statistics, there are 142 settlement and outposts in the West Bank with over 350,000 inhabitants.
Historically, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) are considered the cradle of Jewish civilization, containing the birthplaces and burial sites of key personalities in the Bible. Jews lived in the area until 1948, when the West Bank was occupied by Jordan in the Arab-Israeli war. Indeed, several of the current settlement communities in the West Bank existed prior to 1948 when they were overrun by invading Arab armies. Kfar Etzion and other villages in the Jerusalem-Bethlehem corridor, for example, fell to Arab forces in May 1948 and those captured were massacred. Sons and daughters of those who lived there until 1948 were the first to return after the 1967 war. The Gaza Strip has archeological remains of centuries of Jewish communal life.
In the 1970s, successive Israeli governments believed that settlements in certain sections of the West Bank, particularly in the Jordan Valley and eastern slopes of Samaria, as well as in areas of the Gaza Strip would provide Israel with an important military buffer zone.
While often characterized as “ideological, right-wing, nationalist and religious,” the settler population is actually more diverse and includes secular Israelis, new immigrants, ultra-Orthodox, as well as those who chose their homes in these communities based on affordability and convenience rather than on religion or politics. To be sure, there are many settlers and supporters of the movement who believe there is a religious obligation to settle and hold on to this territory. In addition, the vast majority of settlers and their supporters believe they play an essential role in providing security for the State of Israel, by providing a first line of defense against Palestinian or other Arab attack.
Since 1967, Israeli governments have maintained a willingness to withdraw from areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of a peace agreement with the Arabs. In the event of such an agreement, it has always been expected that at least some of the settlements would have to be uprooted, just as the Israeli town of Yamit in the Sinai was dismantled following Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt.
In the Oslo Accords, settlements were to be negotiated as a final status issue, and were not to be discussed during the interim period. At Camp David, in July 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak reportedly offered to uproot all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and the isolated settlements in up to 95 percent of the territory of the West Bank. The remaining settlements in five percent of the territory of the West Bank – which contain the vast majority of the settler population – were to be grouped into settlement “blocs” which would be annexed to Israel. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat rejected the plan and offered no alternative.
In 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a long-time advocate for settlements, announced plans for Israel to unilaterally disengage from the Gaza Strip, uproot its 21 settlements and relocate its 8,000 residents along with four settlements in the northern West Bank. Sharon argued that in the absence of a serious Palestinian peace partner and ongoing Palestinian terrorism, Israel needed to take unilateral steps to ensure its own security and improve conditions on the ground. The dismantlement of the Gaza and four West Bank settlements was concluded in August 2005, and the Israeli army completed its full disengagement from Gaza in September 2005. Public opinion polls showed that the majority of Israelis supported the disengagement; however, a large and vocal minority of Israelis, particularly the settler community and their supporters, opposed the move and protested and resisted the army’s evacuation of the settlements.
Periodically, over the years, Israeli-Palestinian negotiation facilitators have pushed for Israel to “freeze” settlement building as a gesture of good faith. In such an effort, in 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. However, the Palestinians delayed participating in direct negotiations which only began in the 9th month of the moratorium, and fell apart soon after.
Palestinians and some in the international community consider Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as settlements. Israel disputes this categorization.