Beyond Images Challenging myths and presenting facts about Israel 
WHY SETTLEMENTS? Israeli arguments for and against
London - published on 9 July 2003
Beyond Images Ref: 25

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This Briefing outlines the arguments used in Israel for and against Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

The settlements are certain to be a major issue in future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and it is therefore important to understand the arguments relating to them.

Argument 1:

“Israel is the biblical Promised Land. Israel must retain the West Bank, and continue to establish settlements there”


The basis of the Jewish peoples’ claim to the Land of Israel is biblical.

God promised the Land of Israel to Abraham around 3,500 years ago. According to traditional Jewish belief, that biblical promise applies today. Israel’s existence in that part of the world rests entirely on the biblical claim: otherwise Israel might as well be located in Central Africa or Asia.

The Jews left Egyptian slavery to fulfil God’s promise to them, and always yearned for the Promised Land during their later centuries of forced exile and persecution. The Promised Land includes the entire territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, including what is today called the West Bank. It is the land which was inhabited by the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, and by King David, Elijah the Prophet and Deborah the Judge.

Towns such as Kiryat Arba (on the outskirts of modern-day Hebron), Beit-El and Efrat are in the West Bank and are labelled as “settlements”, which makes them sound recent. In fact, they all have biblical histories stretching back thousands of years, and have played a central part in Jewish national and religious life. Jews only ever left such places when attacked, killed, or driven out.

According to this argument, from 1967, when Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza, it has been religiously forbidden for Israel to hand control of any part of the territories over to any other sovereign authority (such as the Palestinian Authority). By contrast, continued Israeli settlement is a religious obligation.

The argument contains a bitter twist. If Israel withdraws, and agrees to Palestinian rule over the West Bank, this would in reality make that area “Judenrein”: an emotive expression for “Jew-free”. Why? Jews would be entitled to live anywhere in the world, but it would be difficult if not impossible for Jews to live in their own Promised Land, given the violently hostile Palestinian attitudes towards Jewish settlements, and Palestinian control over security in those areas.

The above argument in favour of settlements is commonly made by members of Israel’s National Religious Party, by other parties on the Israeli right such as United Torah Judaism, and by most religiously observant members of the Likud party.


Israeli critics say that this religious approach ignores the realities on the ground. While they do not question most Israelis’ sense of attachment to the Promised Land, they argue that Israel should withdraw from the populated parts of the territories.

The reason is simply that it is not feasible to control the entire territory, while the Palestinians claim the right to self-rule on the same territory. If Israel continues to claim the entire biblical land, the country would have to require millions of Arabs, either immediately or at some future date, to live under Israeli sovereignty but without basic democratic rights.

Religiously, therefore, withdrawal is preferable, so long as it is for the sake of a secure peace agreement with the Palestinians. No-one religiously advocates withdrawal if it is only going to give Palestinian terrorist groups more opportunities for attacking Israel.

The religious justification for withdrawal in the context of a peace agreement is clear: the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh (“saving human life” via a genuine peace agreement) prevails over the concept of Eretz Yisrael Shleima (maintaining the unity of the entire Greater Land of Israel from the River to the Sea).

These arguments are made by politicians such as Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, and by “doveish” members of religious parties such as the centrist religious party Shas.

Argument 2:

“The Jewish people can only achieve their national redemption and bring the Messiah by retaining the entire biblical Land of Israel”


This is a second religious argument in favour of retaining all the land.

The argument runs as follows. Jews are destined for an everlasting redemption and this can only happen, according to Rabbinical teachings, in the Land of Israel. When redemption comes, the Jews will enjoy peace, security, and spiritual tranquility.

Israel’s creation, so soon after the Nazi Holocaust, marked the beginning of a process of the complete redemption of the Jewish people. The Jews lifted themselves out of tragedy and anguish, and by creating Israel are progressing towards the Messianic age.

The wars of 1948 and 1967 (both of which were forced on the Jewish state) were miraculous. As a result of them Israel assumed control of the biblical territory between the River Jordan and the sea (see Argument 1 above). Settleement activity brings the redemption closer. It is not permissible for Israel to reverse this process by returning land. To stop building settlements would mean a rejection of the Messianic vision.

The majority of religious settlers, and many other religious Jews in Israel, adhere to this argument.

Critique: Not all religious Jews – inside or outside Israel – agree.

The counter-argument is that this vision of redemption has placed too great an emphasis on the acquisition of land, and not enough emphasis on other goals of the Jewish people which need to be pursued in order to achieve redemption.

For example, Rabbinic literature stresses the importance of the unity of the Jewish people as a stepping stone to redemption. If retention of the Promised Land divides the Jewish people politically and ideologically, then by definition this policy cannot bring either redemption or the Messiah.

Likewise, the concept of universal justice is at the core of Jewish religious thinking. Israeli critics of the messianic argument argue that by retaining the entire land, Israel is creating an injustice for the Palestinian Arab population of the territories.

Two Jewish values – the holiness of the entire Land of Israel, and the idea of universal justice – conflict. And according to this critique, universal justice must prevail over retention of all the land.

Argument 3:

“There has never existed a sovereign Palestinian state west of the Jordan river. Israeli settlements do not deny any people’s national rights.”


This argument is not inspired by religious belief. Its adherents include many “secular” Israeli politicians.

The argument runs as follows: there has never been an independent State of Palestine. The majority of Palestinians reside today in Jordan, on the eastern side of the Jordan river. If a Palestinian state is declared on the western side of the Jordan this would be a second nation for the Palestinians, which makes no sense.

According to this argument, Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza does not take away the sovereign rights of any other people. Palestinian nationalism is essentially a cloak for Arab anti-Israel sentiment and is not a genuine national movement. The main objective of a Palestinian state in the West Bank would be to pursue a long-term strategy of destroying Israel, rather than building up national life for the Palestinians.

The second Palestinian intifada has given strong ammunition to those who hold this view. Hatred of Israel appears in Israelis’ eyes to be a greater driving force for Palestinians than building their own society.

But how is the matter to be resolved practically? It is argued that if the Israelis display sufficient “will” to hold on to the West Bank, the Arabs will understand that their “false strategy” cannot succeed, because Israel is determined not to yield. They will then either depart voluntarily to reside in Jordan or accept some limited self-rule, which is less than independence, under Israeli sovereignty.

It is important to remember that not all Israelis who live in the West Bank and Gaza are religious. Many live in the territories because housing was offered cheaply, or because of the overall “quality of life”. For them, political arguments in favour of settlements (such as this Argument 3) have greater force than religious arguments.


Critics in Israel argue that, once again, this justification for settlements simply fails to recognise political realities.

Whether and how the Palestinian national movement came into being will be debated for decades to come. But it is not now possible to challenge the Palestinian right to self-rule. Jordan does not offer meaningful alternative statehood for the Palestinians of the West Bank and in Gaza, nor for those who plan to return to their new country from the Palestinian refugee camps.

Israel has no choice but to acknowledge the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, and pursuing settlements as though no rival claims to the territory existed runs counter to this.

Argument 4:

“Israeli settlements strengthen Israel’s military security”


Israel before 1967 was extremely vulnerable geographically. It was 14 kilometres wide at its narrowest point, and Jerusalem and other major population centres were very exposed.

It is claimed that Israel’s victory in the 1967 war gave Israel “strategic depth” – more territory, which it could use as a buffer against future military attack.

Israeli villages and kibbutz collectives had been established since 1948 in remote parts of the country in order to create more defensible borders. It was argued that Israeli settlements should be built post-1967 in order to maintain that “pioneering” approach. Settlement would become a path to future military security.

Israel built settlements in the Gaza Strip to the west of Israel, to impede a future Egyptian attack. And settlements were built in the Jordan Valley to the east of Israel, to impede an armoured assault from Jordan and / or Iraq.

During the 1980s Israel accelerated its settlement building in the heart of the West Bank. Towns such as Ariel, Emmanuel, and Tekoa, together with smaller settlements, were built in the middle of the West Bank. Large suburbs were built around Jerusalem, such as Ma’ale Adumim and Pisgat Ze’ev. The residents were predominantly motivated by religious conviction (see Arguments 1 and 2 above). But they also took account of the need to provide extra lines of defence in the event of future conflict.

According to this argument, Israel’s settlements provide the country with the extra security it requires.


There are two main critiques in Israel of this argument.

Firstly, the settlements have not proven to be the security asset they were claimed to be. As they are often in the midst of Palestinian areas which are hostile, the settlements are targets for attack rather that shields against attack.

Israeli army units are deployed to defend the settlements but their operations are risky, complex and expensive, and cannot provide watertight security.

Secondly, the nature of warfare has transformed since the 1960s and 1970s. Israel no longer faces the threat of mass armoured attack. Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel, and is tied in to the USA; Ba’athist Iraq has been neutralised by the US-led invasion, and the Jordanians also have a peace treaty with Israel.

According to this argument, the idea that Israel needs “strategic strength in depth” by means of extra populated hills or valleys is out-of-date. What matters more is how Israel should deal with the real threats which Israel faces, from unconventional missile-launched weapons, and from Al Qaeda-type terrorism. Neither of these can be defended against by settlements. But, say the critics, a resolution of the Palestinian conflict would enable Israel to refocus on how to deal with these most serious threats.


The purpose of this Briefing has been to show that there are arguments in Israel in favour of the settlements, and against them. The arguments are religious, political and ideological.

Many Israeli residents in the settlements now realise that public opinion in Israel has steadily moved in favour either of freezing settlements or uprooting some of them. Mr Sharon himself has indicated this (see Beyond Images Briefing 32: Ariel Sharon – Unwilling to Compromise?).

It will be easier for the Israeli people to achieve a peaceful transition away from continued settlement activity if supporters of Israel and the Palestinians each acknowledge the sincerity and authenticity of the settlers’ beliefs.