A frequently repeated talking point on the Middle East is that Israeli building in settlements in the West Bank is supposedly taking up more and more land and making Palestinian statehood unviable. A typical example summarising this “conventional wisdom” was the claim cited in the Age newspaper a few years ago by veteran Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott (Nov. 11, 2011):
“Middle Eastern diplomats outside Israel have depicted the present situation as like two people arguing over a pizza, but before the argument is resolved one side (Israel through the acceleration of its settlements program) has started to eat the pizza.”
These sorts of claims are based on a series of fundamental misunderstandings about the nature, scope and rate of Israeli building in West Bank settlements – largely spread via misleading statements made by pro-Palestinian groups and anti-settlement international and Israeli NGOs. This fact sheet presents some basic evidence to allow the discussion of Israeli settlements to take place on a factual and informed basis.
1. Israel has not built any new West Bank settlements over the past 15 years.
The last new West Bank settlement founded was Bruchin, established in 1999 – according to the database maintained by B’tselem, an Israeli NGO highly critical of Israel’s settlement policy. While some “outposts” – generally small clusters of mobile homes established in defiance of Israeli law and without government approval – have been established since then, according to B’tselem, no new “outposts” have been established in the last ten years either.
2. Settlements take up less than 2% of West Bank land.
This is agreed even by various sources generally critical of Israeli policies. For example:
- The BBC published a series of maps as part of a fact sheet called “Israelis and Palestinian in depth”. Of the West Bank it says:
Since 1967, Israel has pursued a policy of building settlements on the West Bank. These cover about 2% of the area of the West Bank and are linked by Israeli-controlled roads…
- The BBC number is actually probably too high. This is clear from some work done by B’tselem. B’tselem commissioned a detailed survey of the West Bank to determine the degree of settlement control and published a highly critical report in 2010. Their survey showed that the “built-up area” of settlements constituted a mere .99% of West Bank land. (The group choose to focus their publicity for the report on the fact that municipal and regional councils associated with the settlements had theoretical legal jurisdiction over 42% of the West Bank, but this figure is largely irrelevant. This is municipal jurisdiction – ie zoning, planning, responsibility for local road maintenance – over mostly empty land. This land can become part of a future Palestinian state essentially at the stroke of a pen.)
- In 2011, veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat gave an interview with the Arabic radio station As-Shams about the 2008 negotiations with the Olmert government, and stated that the settlements were approximately 1.1% of the West Bank, according an aerial photograph provided by European sources (this was reported in the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz.)
3. For more than a decade, Israel has had in place policies that forbid the geographic expansion of existing settlements.
Israel has had in place since 2003 arrangements that it negotiated with the Bush Administration in Washington that no new West Bank settlements can be built and existing settlements cannot expand territorially. Any construction in them is only in built up areas. As then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a major policy speech in December 2003:
Israel will meet all its obligations with regard to construction in the settlements. There will be no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements.
These arrangements remain Israeli government policy to this day, with Paul Hirschson, deputy spokesman at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirming to ABC radio in 2011 “there has been no expansion of existing settlements in a decade. What there has been and continues to be is expanded continued development within the existing municipal boundaries of some settlements.” While there is some dispute about marginal cases – what constitutes the “construction line”, how to count the case of legalising the existence of an already existing “outpost” – there is no dispute that there is no meaningful increase in the amount of West Bank land taken up by settlements since that time.
4. It is simply not true, as is often alleged in the media, that there has been any “surge” in construction in Israeli settlements over recent years. Construction has actually declined some 19% on average over the past 5 years.
On March 10, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics issued its quarterly report on national housing starts and completions for the fourth quarter of 2014 as well as a revised summary of data for the previous three quarters. The statistics showed a 52% drop in West Bank housing starts for 2014, compared to 2013: plunging from 2,829 housing starts in 2013 to 1,344 last year. In addition, despite quarterly and yearly variation, housing starts in West Bank settlements were down by 19% when comparing equal time periods before and after Netanyahu became prime minister.
Between 2003 and 2008, 11,366 housing units were begun in the West Bank. However, from 2009 until 2014, only 9,216 units were initiated. Netanyahu began his current stint as prime minister in May 2009 (see Table 1, below).
Table 1: Housing starts in the West Bank by year since 2000
5. Neither the Oslo Accords, nor any subsequent signed Israel-Palestinian agreement put any restriction on settlement growth in Area C, the Israeli-controlled area of the West Bank.
Article 5, Section 3 of the Oslo Accords, which deals with what will be discussed during permanent status negotiations, makes it clear that the future of the settlements would be resolved only through direct negotiations between the two parties. No other article limits construction of or in settlements.
Moreover, this was confirmed in 1997 by then-US Secretary of State Madeline Albright who told NBC that while she disagreed with an Israeli decision to build new dwellings in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, “it’s legal”. Asked by Reuters if Albright was changing US policy of ambiguity regarding the legal status of Israeli settlements, her spokesperson James Rubin clarified that “All she meant by that was that as a technical matter, Oslo does not prohibit the settlements” or “[the construction of additional] housing in [the West Bank settlement of] Efrat.”
6. Knowledgeable experts agree – it is not true that settlement growth is destroying hopes for a two-state solution
Israeli experts best-informed on the extent and geography of settlement growth – even when extremely critical of that growth – generally acknowledge that the claims that it has destroyed or is about to destroy the two-state solution are not correct.
Here are two examples:
- Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli is one of Israel’s leading experts on borders and the separation barrier. During his IDF career he has served as commander of the Northern Division in Gaza, deputy military secretary to the Minister of Defence and the Prime Minister, and head of the administration for negotiations with the Palestinians. He is also a peace activist, and one of the founders of the “Geneva Initiative”, which put forward a plan for a two-state peace agreed on by Israeli and Palestinian civil society groups. In 2013, he published a study of the settlements in which he concluded:
Regardless of where one stands on the wisdom or otherwise of past or future settlement construction in various parts of the West Bank, creating a border between Israel and the West Bank remains entirely possible…The picture outlined here of the demographic and settlement reality in the West Bank shows that the real difficulty in implementing the idea of partition is not physical but political.
- Similarly, Lior Amihai is head of Peace Now’s “Settlement Watch” project, which monitors construction in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and is highly critical of all such building. He is as knowledgeable as anyone about the extent of that construction, yet when he was asked in a 2014 interview whether he thinks “we’re still, in principle, in the area of an [Israeli-Palestian two-state] agreement being possible with land swaps?” Amihai replied, that while he felt currently Israeli settlement policies were unhelpful…
My view is clear: if the parties were to reach an agreement today then the two-state solution is very possible… I’m certain that if there was a true desire to reach a solution, it would be possible. It could be done so the majority of settlers stay in their homes and would not need to be evacuated.
7. There are clear models for how to create a Palestinian state, based on land swaps, which will allow Israel to maintain sovereignty over large majorities of the settlement population by annexing small amounts of West Bank land in exchange for equivalent Israeli territory. There is absolutely no good reason to think that Israel’s recent settlement policy is changing this reality.
David Makovsky’s Washington Institute for Near East Policy study from 2010, “Imagining the Border” still provides the definitive guide to various possible models of how the borders of a two-state peace deal could be agreed – and there is no reason to believe that growth in settlements has changed any of his analysis since then.
Similarly, Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli’s study, noted above, concludes that:
Some 80 per cent of the settlers (excluding East Jerusalem) live in settlement blocs, where they represent 95 per cent of the total population… To create a border which connects these major settlement blocks and the East Jerusalem neighbourhoods to Israel requires annexing around 6% of the West Bank, which can be compensated with 1:1 land swaps.
Arieli argued that a deal much like that offered by Israel under the Olmert Administration in 2008 remains viable. See his map analysing the proposal below: