Jewish settlements:
Complex realities beyond the headlines

Published: 17 December 2010
Briefing Number 274

Click to Printclick here to print page

Summary:   Israel’s settlements on the West Bank are a subject of enormous international attention, and near-universal condemnation.  Most condemnations are sweeping: for example “all the settlements are illegal”; “the settlements are an obstacle to peace”; or “settlements are all since 1967”.

We have published a brand-new article by Gil Troy who is a Canadian history professor and leading moderate-minded expert on Israel, concerning the settlements. 

Troy presents the complex realities behind the Jewish settlements, and explains that there are four different types of settlements, each of which needs to be analysed differently. Troy argues that peace can only be built when we speak accurately about them, and recognise the subtleties, rather than make sweeping generalisations.  

His article is lucid and incisive. We believe it makes a real contribution to the quest for peace, and building up understanding of Israel and its challenges.  
Rather than regurgitating familiar platitudes about the settlements, Troy explains the realities in way which is both practical and honest.

Troy’s piece was published in the Israeli English-language newspaper The Jerusalem Post ( on 16 November 2010.  We have added some  Beyond Images clarifications and comments to our reprinted version of his piece.       

Why the conflict cannot be reduced to the issue of Jewish settlements

Barack Obama and his expert advisers talk constantly about ‘the settlements’.  Reducing the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict to any one dimension does violence to the truth.  Reducing the conflict to the settlements is an act of historical vandalism, obscuring the memory of nearly 30,000 Israelis very few of whom died in settlement-related violence – most of whom died because of the continuing Arab refusal to accept Israel’s existence.

  • Obsessing about the settlements blames Israel while absolving the Palestinians of responsibility
  • It is a form of liberal racism, condescendingly treating the Palestinians as if they are not accountable for their deeds and words
  • It ignores the fact that the delegitimisation of Israel today does not stop at the settlements but attacks the essence of the Zionist project
  • It glides over the fact that Israel withdrew from 25 settlements in Gaza and Samaria in 2005, then endured thousands of rocket attacks and a Gaza takeover by Hamas, whose charter targets the entire Jewish state – and the Jewish people
  • It overlooks the fact that when Yasser Arafat led his people away from the Oslo negotiations back towards terror in 2000, Palestinians blew up Jerusalem buses, Tel-Aviv falafel stands and Haifa cafes, treating all of Israel as a “settlement”
  • Emphasising the settlements pretends that the conflict began in 1967, even though the PLO started in 1964, six Arab armies attacked the new state in May 1948 and the Arabs rejected the UN partition compromise of 1947
  • Emphasising the settlements circumvents negotiation, caving in to Palestinian land claims, mindlessly embracing their one-sided narrative.

Advocates of the two-state compromise must restore the multi-dimensional nature of this messy problem. 
Normally, one would expect intellectuals – and an intellectual president like Obama – to spreadhead the effort, preferring sophistication to sloganeering, multilateral reconciling to one-sided finger pointing, truth in all its messiness to propaganda.

Over-simplifying a complex history: Jerusalem and Kfar Etzion examples

Those of us who know the complex history must reframe talk about the settlements by acknowledging different kinds of settlements.  Palestinian propagandists describe all buildings beyond the Green Line, the artificially drawn 1949 armistice line, as illegal intrusions on Palestinian land. But borders have been fluid, populations have been mobile, in this neighbourhood.  A house renovated in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter – overrun by the Jordanians in 1948 – differs from new huts on a hilltop overlooking a Palestinian village.  The “settlement” of Kfar Etzion, first established in 1927, and also destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948, was remembered longingly by its survivors and their children for 19 years. Many of them returned after 1967, and for this reason alone Kfar Etzion differs from a settlement established after the Six Day War.

Retaining territory seized during a defensive war

We also know that traditionally, when countries fight, the winner keeps the territory.  I challenge my historian colleagues, asking them to name one example when a country won a defensive war [the 1967 war was a defensive one - see Beyond Images Briefing 103] and then voluntarily returned the territory it conquered, if it had a prior claim to the land.  The only answer is Israel returning the Sinai to Egypt in 1979, relinquishing control of Gaza under Oslo in 1994 and leaving Gaza in 2005. [We do not believe that Israel had a prior claim to Sinai prior to the 1967 war – Beyond Images] 

The four different types of settlements

Israelis must teach the world to stop talking about the settlements – which includes not talking about building freezes in the settlements – they are not an organic unit.  Over the years, four different types of settlements have arisen:

  • Once-settled settlements, restoring communities like the Jewish Quarter or Kfar Etzion
  • Security settlements, following the Allon Plan among other strategies, building outposts along the Jordanian border and at critical military junctures
  • Suburban settlements within commuting distance of Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem absorbing some of the demographic pressure choking the middle of the country
  • Salvation settlements initiated by Gush Emunim and other diehards, to restore the Jewish presence in biblical lands [we don’t think the word ‘diehards’ is appropriate – Beyond Images]

Facilitating compromise – four different initiatives in the territories

To facilitate compromise, the world must acknowledge at least four distinct residential initiatives in the disputed territories [see Briefing 247 for the reason why the correct phrase is “disputed territory” rather than “occupied territory” – Beyond Images]):

  • Jerusalem, which is not a settlement but is and was the capital of the Jewish people.  Even if its boundaries are renegotiated, it remains a special case
  • Organic suburban settlements – part of the outer ring of Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, which most analysts agree would remain Israeli in a land swap [The Palestinians strongly reject the idea of such a landswap – see Beyond Images Briefing 273]
  • Outlying settlements – geographically more removed from centers of Israeli life, their presence would disrupt the contiguity of a Palestinian state, because almost all assume that a Palestinian state must be Jew-free even as Arabs continue to live in Israel [Troy is making two separate points here – firstly, if outlying Israeli settlements become part of sovereign Israeli territory in the future it is hard to see how a future Palestinian state could be territorially contiguous; and secondly, if the areas in which those outlying settlements are located become sovereign Palestinian territory, the Palestinians have made very clear that the Jews would need to leave – Beyond Images]            
  • Outlaw settlements – the few unauthorised settlements which should be dismantled immediately, asserting the rule of law, independent of any diplomatic dynamics

We need to have zero tolerance for the delegitimisation of Israel

Yes, it is difficult to reframe international discourse.  But while it might take detailed paragraphs to explain settlement subtleties, Israel must take a much tougher stand against delegitimisation, which requires one line to explain: fighting delegitimisation is fighting for peace (see Beyond Images Special Report: Delegitimisation – Israel’s New Battlefield, November 2010). 

Just as the Palestinians, and many Israeli and international NGOs, complain each time a Jew breaks ground outside the Green Line, Israel, the US and the entire pro-peace infrastructure must complain every time a Palestinian delegitimises Israel, denies its right to exist, or attacks the Jews.  There must be zero tolerance for such language, which only discourages compromise.

Acknowledging the truth and the complexity of the settlements

In labelling settlements accurately, I do not necessarily advocate holding all of them permanently.  [Neither do successive Israeli governments. Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks of making “painful” territorial concessions – See Briefing 268 - and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also called for painful departure – see Briefing 133 - from territory to which the Jewish people have a deep historical connection – Beyond Images]

But we need a coalition of conscience to stand for the truth in all its complexity, to fight demonisation from all sides and to work for peace, improvising a solution based on mutual accommodation rather than stubbornly and artificially freezing boundaries in one random historical moment or another.

Some related Beyond Images Briefings
“Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law….”
(Beyond Images Briefing 247, November 2009)

Why settlements? Israeli arguments for and against” (Beyond Images Briefing 25, July 2003)