Israeli Settlements | IMEU Policy Backgrounder

May 06, 2022
Israeli Settlements | IMEU Policy Backgrounder

Illegal Israeli settlement near the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. Photo credit: Svala Jonsdottir/Flickr. Creative Commons License.


  • Since 1967, Israel has been establishing illegal Jewish-only colonies on stolen land in the Palestinian West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as in the Syrian Golan Heights. According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Israel had authorized 12 settlements in East Jerusalem and 138 settlements in other parts of the West Bank. In addition, there are an estimated 150 settlement outposts which have received Israeli government support but not official authorization. According to the settler lobby Yesha Council, there were approximately 674,000 Israelis living in these settlements as of 2020. In addition, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 24,000 Israeli settlers in the Golan Heights as of 2020 living in 33 settlements, according to the Golan Regional Council. The expansion of Israeli settlements has gotten a big boost from the current Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former head of the primary settler’s organization.  
  • All Israeli settlements–whether located in East Jerusalem or other parts of the West Bank, or whether officially sanctioned by the government or not authorized–are illegal under international law. Israel is in belligerent military occupation of the West Bank (and Gaza Strip) and Golan Heights, and is obligated under international law to abide by the Fourth Geneva Convention in its policies toward these occupied territories. Article 49 categorically states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” In addition, Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines as a war crime “The transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.
  • Israeli settlements are the primary driver of and pretext for Israel’s dispossessing Palestinians from their land, demolishing Palestinian homes, fragmenting Palestinian space, and appropriating Palestinian natural resources. The map below (click here for enlarged version), produced by the UN, shows how Israeli settlements carve up the West Bank into disconnected islands of Palestinian population centers completely cut off from one another and surrounded by Israeli areas of control.

Map credit: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

  • Israeli settlers, often backed by the army and state, frequently engage in violence against Palestinians by injuring and killing them, destroying their houses and uprooting their trees, and in general threatening and harassing them. Israeli settlers have greatly increased the frequency of these attacks, with Israeli military data showing a 150 percent increase over recent years. According to the UN, in the first ten months of 2021, Israeli settlers attacked Palestinians and their property 410 times, resulting in four fatalities. As B’Tselem noted, these attacks against Palestinians are best understood as an extension of Israeli government policy. “Settler violence against Palestinians serves as a major informal tool at the hands of the state to take over more and more West Bank land. The state fully supports and assists these acts of violence, and its agents sometimes participate in them directly. As such, settler violence is a form of government policy, aided and abetted by official state authorities with their active participation.”
  • An official US legal opinion written by the State Department confirms the illegality of Israeli settlements. This 1978 opinion, written by the State Department’s legal adviser for congressional leaders, concludes that “the establishment of the civilian settlements in those territories is inconsistent with international law.” Subsequent statements to the contrary by President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were political, not legal, statements and in no way diminish the validity of this sole US legal opinion on the illegality of Israeli settlements. Nevertheless, dozens of tax-deductible organizations raise yearly tens of millions of dollars that are funneled to illegal Israeli settlements. In 2021, seven Members of Congress expressed their concern to the IRS that “Granting and sustaining 501(c)(3) status recognizes and supports this unlawful conduct that is contrary to existing U.S. obligations under international law and established U.S. public policy,” and called for an investigation into these organizations’ tax-exempt status. 
  • Precedent in US law exists for ensuring that US funding does not benefit illegal Israeli settlementsP.L. 108-11 mandates that loan guarantees to Israel “may be issued under this section only to support activities in the geographic areas which were subject to the administration of the Government of Israel before June 5, 1967.” The law also stipulates that loan guarantees “shall be reduced by an amount equal to the amount extended or estimated to have been extended by the Government of Israel during the period from March 1, 2003, to the date of issue of the guarantee, for activities which the President determines are inconsistent with the objectives and understandings reached between the United States and the Government of Israel regarding the implementation of the loan guarantee program.” During the Bush administration, the United States deducted more than $1 billion from the amount of loan guarantees available to Israel due its expenditures on Israeli settlement, according to Congressional Research Service.
  • Current legislation in the 117th Congress would strengthen reporting requirements on the impact of Israeli settlements. H.R.2590, the Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act, would require a State Department report on “the nature and extent of Israeli settlement activities, including an assessment of the compliance of the Government of Israel with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334.” This Security Council resolution reiterates the “demand that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard.” H.R.2590 would also require a Government Accountability Office report assessing Offshore Procurement for Israel and “the manner and extent to which these funds have directly or indirectly supported illegal Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.” 

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