Illegal Settlements and Settler Violence

by Palestine Center Interns

The June War of 1967 (“Al-Naksa”)

In order to understand the legality of settlements, it is important first to appreciate the historical significance of the June War of 1967, also known as the Six Day War. After launching a military campaign against Egypt, Israel began its occupation over the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. Then, in response to a retaliation from Syrian and Jordanian forces, Israel conquered East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus and remaining lands in the West Bank and Golan Heights – land it still occupies today.

Brief History of Settlements

  • Following the June War of 1967, Israel’s major political parties at the time, Labor and Likud, supported the establishment of the first settlements built by the Labor government from 1968 to 1977, “with the explicit objective to secure a Jewish majority in key strategic regions of the West Bank.”
  • One of the first areas where settlements were first constructed was on land expropriated from Palestinians in Hebron. Many of the settlers who came to Hebron believed that “Israel’s victory the prior year [June War] was an act of God which indicated divine providence that the historic Land of Israel should be restored to the Jewish people.”
  • It wasn’t until 1977, when Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister, that his government provided financial incentives for Jews to move to settlements in the West Bank, in order to solidify Israel’s hold on that specific territory: “that was part of biblical and historical Israel and preempt the creation of a Palestinian state.”
  • Israel settlers today continue to move into the West Bank for economic and sometimes political incentives.
  • Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian land has continued unabated since 1967. Settlement building increased, as has the building of an extensive road network for use exclusively by settlers.

What are Illegal Settlements?

According to the Council for European Palestinian Relations (CEPR), a settlement is “any residential area built across the Green Line, the 1948 ceasefire line between the newly established state of Israel and its Palestinian/Arab neighbor.” After the June War of 1967, Israel began building settlements on the land it occupied, namely the West Bank. According to Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Conventions, it is illegal for an occupying power to transfer a civilian population from occupied territories in order to promote its own settlement. Likewise, Article 43 of the Hague Regulations mandates that the occupying power “take all the measures in its power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.” Further, United Nations Resolution 242 stipulates that Israel withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent conflict” as well as “respect territorial integrity.” Israel has continued to build settlements in the occupied West Bank. As the continuation of settlement-building has not ceased, Israel continues to violate international law.

Settlement Building in Numbers

According to B’Tselem, by the end of 2012, there were “125 government-sanctioned Israeli settlements in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem and settlement enclaves within Hebron)”; additionally, there were “approximately 100 ‘settlement outposts’ located throughout the West Bank.” The number of settlers in these illegal settlements is estimated to be over 600,000 and as of 2014 (including East Jerusalem) and Israel recently announced that it would be building an additional 1,400 houses in occupied territories. This number is expected to grow, according to Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who hopes that by 2019 the number of settlers will grow by at least 50 percent. The numbers continue to increase each year.

Settler Violence

Some suggest that settler violence has been increasing due to several factors: “The growth of the settler population over the past generation, the diversification of religious and ideological strands among it, and the sense of betrayal felt by settlers following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.” Others believe that extremist views and polarization in the settlements are growing and this, combined with heavy arms easily available to settlers, fosters a climate of hatred and aggression against defenseless and unarmed Palestinians. Many demand that the acts of violence and destruction be labeled as terrorism, as terrorism is intended to “produce a psychological effect, terror, as a means of advancing a political agenda.” The growth of the settler community over the past few decades has also created a “hilltop youth” culture: these settler youth who seem to exhibit little care for Israeli civil laws and perpetuate violence against the Palestinian communities. They are believed to number in the thousands and they view any type of Palestinian residence in the West Bank as an “obstacle to God’s will.” Settler violence has also increased by 150 percent since 2009 according to the United Nations.

The violence is almost always marked with the words “price tag” in Hebrew, signifying the ideology of targeting “Palestinians, pro-peace Israelis, and Israeli soldiers alike for supposedly anti-settlement measures.” It is widely believed that after the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza (which also uprooted Jewish settlers), a radical fringe group believed the Israeli government could not be trusted, and decided to take matters into their own hands. Since the Second Intifada, the Israeli government has done very little about the violence directed toward Palestinians. Because of this, there has been very little demand for disciplinary action against these violent groups and they largely go unpunished for their actions.

Settler Violence in Numbers: 1 January – 1 April 2015

Settler violence constitutes harm perpetrated against Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories by Israeli settlers. The Palestine Center has been diligently recording settler violence on a daily basis since 2004. From the start of January 2015 alone, we have found that there were:

  • 79 assaults on Palestinians, including:
    • 7 targeted hit-and-run attacks – including 5 children ages 5-16
    • 42 assaults that required hospitalization as they were “victims of beatings with sticks, iron pipes and knives” and occasionally, gunfire and Molotov cocktails
    • 11 instances of settlers opening fire indiscriminately into crowds
    • 5 attempted kidnappings of children
    • 59 intrusions and assaults on Al-Aqsa mosque during times of worship
  • 73 instances of destruction of property, including:
    • 7,475 olive trees uprooted and destroyed
    • 32 acres of private land leveled and destroyed
      poisoning, running over, or stealing of livestock
    • 48 instances of raids on homes and agricultural land

Since January 1, 2015, there have been 228 instances of some type of settler violence against Palestinians. This averages out to around 2.5 forms of aggression every day. A daily account of settler violence as well as military violence, raids, and detentions can be found here.

In response to these attacks, the Israeli military and police forces have done very little to curb settler violence against Palestinians. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that only around 8.5 percent of investigations are brought to indictment, whereas around 85 percent of investigations are closed due to some type of “internal police error.”

Isn’t Violence Just Physical?

The short answer is no. Violence can be emotionally or agriculturally directed as well. For instance, the daily military-protected raids on Al-Aqsa mosque communicate that Palestinian Muslims do not have religious freedom or protection when worshiping. These assaults on Al-Aqsa include provocation of Palestinian worshipers in the third holiest site of Islam. Many Israeli settlers believe the destruction of Al-Aqsa is paramount to upholding Zionist history. The provocations occur on a daily basis and these confrontations ultimately lead to Israeli forces firing tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets at Palestinian Muslims. In all 44 instances of these clashes which occurred this year, Israeli settlers were under the protection of Israeli forces. A recent court decision mandated that Israelis be protected by Israeli forces when storming al-Aqsa. This has severe psychological repercussions and also presents serious threats to freedom of religion. The result is that worshiping almost guarantees having to confront the presence of hate speech, threats, tear gas, and rubber bullets, and offers no protection to Palestinians and their right to worship. Religious persecution is not limited to Muslims in Palestine. On February 26, 2015, Israeli settlers set fire to a church building in Jerusalem and spray-painted anti-Christian slander on the church walls

Agricultural damage is violence as well. According to the OHCHR, olive trees and agriculture are the sources of income for over 100,000 Palestinians. The damage to land and olive trees is tremendous: “For example, a damaged 50 year old olive tree requires five years to bear fruit again and 20 years to produce a significant level of production.” In our research, one of the most egregious instances of olive tree destruction was on 1 January, 2015, when Israeli settlers uprooted 5,000 trees in one day belonging to the Hadbah, Hamza, and Hijaz families in Ramallah. With one olive tree estimated to be worth $750 USD, the damage done to olive trees in the West Bank, since the beginning of 2015, is estimated to be over $4.6 million.

According to the United Nations Report of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories, Palestinians reported the psychological effects they experienced included “feelings of frustration, fear and insecurity, eating and sleeping disorders, anxiety, aggressiveness, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other behavioral problems.” Additionally, the UN reported a testimony from a Palestinian villager regarding the effect of settler violence on children: “children can’t think of anything else but settler violence. They fear settlers and keep thinking of how they can escape and hide when settlers attack. Even their games are affected: children play ‘Arabs and settlers’ by throwing stones at each other.” Additional effects of violence on children include bed-wetting and panic attacks.

International Response to Settler Violence

  • UNRWA (USA) currently has a campaign to Stop Settler Violence based on reports from the OCHA stating, “Eighty to 90 percent of cases opened against settlers are closed without any prosecution at all.” Even if the settlers who committed a violent act are released, which is often, they are sentenced with a very light punishment, or none at all.
  • UNRWA (USA) also has a campaign called the Olive Tree Initiative through their Job Creation Program. This program helps provide Palestinian refugees in the West Bank with meaningful employment that gives back to their communities. Specifically, in response to constant agricultural damage due to settler violence, some of the jobs have workers trim the trees that have been burnt by settlers and also plant new trees to replace those destroyed by settlers, ultimately helping Palestinian farmers safeguard their livelihoods.

Further Reading:
Update on Settler Violence in the West Bank; United Nations Human Rights

Settler Violence in the West Bank: A Decades-Long Reign of Terror on Unarmed Palestinians

Why is Israel Still Blind to Settler Violence Against Palestinians?

U.S. Media Erase Israeli State and Settler Violence

Settler Violence: It Comes with the Territory

Settler Violence and Israeli Incitement