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Israeli Settlements Have Grown During the Obama Years

Topical and Current Affairs


SEPT. 16, 2016, 12:07 P.M. E.D.T.

JERUSALEM — In his landmark speech to the Arab world seven years ago, President Barack Obama warned that Israeli settlements on occupied territories were undermining hopes for peace. “It is time for these settlements to stop,” he declared.

As Obama heads into the home stretch of his presidency, he leaves behind an unfulfilled vision. Not only did he fail to stop it, but he watched Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem thrive — despite repeated White House condemnations.

According to Israeli government data obtained by The Associated Press, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed a wave of construction during the Obama presidency that matched, and even exceeded, the amount of building that took place under his predecessors during the Bush years.

The figures show the limits of U.S. influence over its close ally and a reluctance to link financial support to Israel with policy differences. Despite the Israeli defiance over settlements and a long history of friction between Obama and Netanyahu, the two countries signed a deal this week giving Israel $38 billion in U.S. military aid over 10 years, the largest deal of its kind in American history.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said the Obama presidency has been a disappointment for her people. After the promise of his 2009 speeches in Egypt and Turkey pledging to build bridges with the Muslim world, “it’s been downhill since then,” she said.

Ashrawi said she was “not surprised at all” by the figures and dismissed U.S. criticism as lip service. “They did nothing to stop it. On the contrary, they looked the other way.”

The settlement figures, obtained from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, show that 12,288 new settlement buildings were started in the West Bank during Obama’s term up to June 30, the most recent data available.

In the first half of 2016 alone, work began on 1,195 housing units, figures released this week showed.

Based on that pace of construction, the number could well exceed 13,000 housing units by the time Obama leaves office, not far behind the 14,636 begun during Bush’s two terms.

Figures for east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish their capital, show a similar story.

According to data gathered by the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now, there were 3,915 housing starts during Obama’s term as of the end of 2015. Based on recent trends, by the time Obama leaves office that number will almost certainly surpass the 4,191 units started during the Bush years.

Obama did manage to coax Israel into a partial settlement freeze in 2009 and 2010, briefly slowing down construction. In addition, much of the construction has been confined to major “blocs” and areas of Jerusalem that Israel expects to keep under any future peace deal. But to Palestinians, these distinctions make no difference.

Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem, along with the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim all three territories for an independent state alongside Israel, a position that has broad international backing.

The U.S., along with the Palestinians and nearly all of the international community, considers settlements to be illegal or illegitimate, viewing them as obstacles to peace. Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem is not internationally recognized.

Over five decades, the Israeli settler population in the West Bank has grown to roughly 400,000 people in dozens of settlements, in addition to 200,000 others in areas of east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and the territory is now controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Despite the stance that settlements are detrimental to peace, U.S. officials say the U.S. is committed to Israeli security, and that military aid cannot be linked to policy differences.

“It wasn’t even hinted at during the discussions,” Israel’s acting national security adviser, Jacob Nagel, who negotiated the aid package, was quoted as saying by the Haaretz daily.

In a statement marking the deal, Obama said the U.S. “will also continue to press for a two-state solution to the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the deeply troubling trends on the ground that undermine this goal.”

The White House declined to answer questions about the success or failure of its settlement policy. But a senior Obama administration official acknowledged the settlements have continued growing significantly during the Obama years. The official said the U.S. decided against linking the aid package to settlement policy, fearing such threats would embolden Israel’s enemies and decrease prospects for peace.

The official declined to say whether Obama plans to take any action in his final months of office, but left open the possibility the U.S. would “carefully consider” supporting a U.N. resolution criticizing Israel if the occasion arose. The official was not authorized to speak on the record and requested anonymity.

Peter Beinart, a liberal American commentator who has been an outspoken critic of the settlements, said Obama had missed an opportunity. He accused the president of “giving up” American leverage because for fear of angering the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC and its allies.

“American policy toward Israel is a charade,” Beinart wrote in Haaretz.

Bush enjoyed warm relations with Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert during his term from 2001 to 2009. Obama has had a more contentious relationship with Netanyahu since both men took office in 2009. Yet both presidents took similar stances against the settlements, to little avail.

Netanyahu, a longtime ally of the settlers, has dismissed the differences with the U.S. as a friendly disagreement. Last week, he angered his allies by comparing international calls to uproot settlements to “ethnic cleansing.”

Hagit Ofran, a researcher at Peace Now, said a president’s influence is limited, and that ultimately the Israeli prime minister drives settlement policy. Ironically, she said, construction tends to increase when peace talks are taking place, apparently because negotiators are so focused on reaching a deal.

In a way, the breakdown in talks over the past two years has restrained Netanyahu, she said.

“Now, there is no political process, Netanyahu is exposed. Whatever he is doing gets the full attention,” she said.



The first Israeli settlement in the Occupied Territories was installed on the Syrian Golan Heights in July 1967. There are 168 settlements today with a population estimated at around 390,000 people.

The number of settlements and their inhabitants are divided up as follows in the different occupied regions (these figures are from May 2001 but are continually increasing – here: figures from 2001):

  • Gaza Strip: 14 settlements/7000 settlers;
  • Golan Heights: 29 settlements/9000 settlers;
  • West Bank: 107 settlements/180,000 settlers;
  • East Jerusalem: 190,000 settlers, mainly in the urban belt created around the old city since 1967.

The two largest settlements are Maale Adumim (25,000 inhabitants) and Ariel (15,000 inhabitants), both considered by Israel as « Israeli cities » and situated in the West Bank. Maale adunim has been annexed to the municipal territory of Jerusalem.

Most Israelis go to live in the settlements for economic reasons (they benefit from many fiscal and financial advantages). An estimated 50.000 people make up the hard core of religious settlers.

There were two main phases in the creation of these settlements: the Labour phase and the Likud phase.

From 1968 to 1977, the Labour government focused its settlement programme (Allon plan) on regions with low Palestinian populations, on the creation of a Jewish belt around East Jerusalem, in the Jordan Valley and on the Golan Heights, with a view to a possible handing back of part of Palestinian territory to Jordan in case of negotiations. This policy was intensified in the last years of the Labour government (under the impulsion of Shimon Peres) and then further radicalised when the Likud came to power in 1977. Colonisation accelerated and aimed to prevent any « territorial compromise » through the installation of many settlements in densely populated Palestinian areas. This policy is still pursued today, particularly in the zone situated east of Jerusalem.

Between December 1987 – the date of the beginning of the Intifada – and December 1993, the total number of settlers increased by 136%, according to the leading Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz. This was due notably to the influx of immigrants from the former USSR but also apparently because of speculation on the compensation which might be granted by the government if certain settlements were dismantled.

In 1992, Ytzhak Rabin’s Labour government decided to suspend the geographic extension of Jewish settlements and to abolish its preferential status for the West Bank (this status was maintained for Golan, the Gaza Strip and the Jordan Valley). This did not stop further development (construction of houses, bypasses – which Palestinians are not allowed to use – to link existing settlements). During the negociation and implementation of the Oslo Agreements, ie between 1993 and 2000, the number of settlers therefore increased by about 57% (from 248,000 to 390,000 settlers) in the Palestinian territories. In the light of the negotiations which started in Oslo in September 1993 between the PLO and Israel (see « Oslo peace process »), there is evidence of a deliberate determination by Labour to perpetuate the demographic and territorial elements which will undoubtedly weigh in the balance during negotiations on a permanent status for the Palestinian territories.

In line with the ideology of the Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu decided, just after his election in May 1996, to lift the partial freeze on settlements and, in December, to re-establish the status of « national priority » for the West Bank settlements and to encourage their extension. If the Israeli Prime Minister’s plans had carried out to the full, it was estimated that the settler population could have reached 500,000 by the year 2000 in all the Occupied Territories.

The election of Mr. Ehud Barak as Prime Minister of Israel in April 1999 had made the Palestinians hope that this trend could be reversed. But the new Prime Minister had pledged only that new settlements would not be built, and so construction in the existing ones continued at the same rate.

One could definitely not speak of a real break in the settlement policy carried out by the Labour government after the Likud; but rather of slight ideological and strategic differences. The Labour party sees the existence of settlements first and foremost as a strategic and demographic security guarantee whereas the Likud sees it essentially as the natural achievement of the Zionist project. And although the Labour movement acknowledged the principle of the creation of a Palestinian entity with limited territorial sovereignty – unlike the Likud which only talks of administrative autonomy – both demonstrate a desire to develop the settlements and maintain a maximum of enclaves in Palestinian territory under Israeli sovereignty. As for the Palestinians, they consider that the pursuit of colonisation flies in the face of the Oslo Agreements because it modifies unilaterally the situation of the Palestinian territories, of which the permanent status still has to be negotiated.

Following the relaunching of the Peace Process and the signing of the « Wye 2 » agreement in Sharm El-Sheikh, on 5 September 1999, Mr. Barak won approval of the Israeli cabinet on a compromise concerning the fate of 42 « illegal » (unauthorized) settlements: 15 were to be dismanteled, 11 would be legalized while 16 others would be temporarily tolerated but further construction would be prohibited.

However the continuing development of the existing colonies had already hindered the negociations on the final status begun as planned on 8 November. With a crisis carrying on for more than three weeks with regards to the second redeployment scheduled in the Sharm Al-Sheikh Agreement, the Palestinians had stopped negociating on all subjects other than that of the settlements. Indeed, Mr. Barak’s administration had authorized in one year more new constructions in the settlements than Mr Netanyahu’s in an average year. And the comments made by the Labour administration emphasizing that new constructions were carried out solely on settlements which Israel intended to keep did not help either. The election of the Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, to the post of Prime Minister, brought to power one of the main architects (as Minister of Agriculture and Minister of the Infrastructure) of settlements in the Palestinian territories. Mr Sharon put forward a peace plan foreseeing the creation of a Palestinian state made up of 5 enclaves and covering 52% of the West Bank and 82% of the Gaza Strip.


In June 2002, the Israeli government adopted a plan to construct a security barrier in the West Bank. Israel maintains the barrier is essential to protect its citizens from terrorism and to prevent would-be suicide bombers from entering Israel. It claims the construction is intended for purely security purposes, and does not represent a political statement or a future permanent border. The majority of Israeli public has supported the barrier. Palestinians, however, believe it creates “facts on the ground” and imposes unilateral solutions, which preclude negotiated agreements in the future. They argue it makes the establishment of a viable Palestinian state impossible, since it will leave the Palestinian people with only half of the West Bank within isolated, non-contiguous, walled enclaves, closely controlled by Israel. Their main point of contention is that the barrier does not run along the 1967 border, the so-called “Green Line”, but in some areas veers well into the Occupied Territories, therefore rendering it illegal. If completed, around 16% of Palestinians will be situated outside the confines of the fence, whereas, 98 % of the settlers will live in the zones de facto annexed into Israeli territory.

Concerns have also been raised as to the damaging effects of the separation barrier on the Palestinian population. Palestinian villages and towns near the wall have become isolated ghettos where movement in and out is limited, if not impossible, thus severing access to work, health, and education. Fertile lands of more than 50 villages have been separated and isolated from their communities. Hundreds of farmers and traders are cut off from their land and means of economic survival, and subjected to a permit system to access their lands. Additionally, the demolition of numerous houses, the confiscation of land, wells and water tanks, and the deracination of olive plants have instigated strong apprehension and opposition. Moreover, around 200.000 people will be trapped between the Green Line and the barrier, in areas declared “military closed zones” by Israel. The impact of the plan has been felt most acutely in Qalqiliya, which has been cut off on three sides with one single entrance, an Israeli checkpoint, regulating access to the 40.000 inhabitant town.

The construction began in June 2002 west from Jenin. In July 2003, the Israeli army announced the completion of the “First Phase”, which runs 145 km through the northern West Bank districts of Jenin, Tulkarem, and Qalqiliya, and will continue south until Ramallah. Two sections either side of Jerusalem and a section in the Jordan Valley have also been completed. In the southern West Bank the wall encircles Bethlehem and Hebron. (See map for the total proposed route).

The structure, part wall, part fence, will reach approximatively 700 km long upon its completion, scheduled for the end of 2004. It will cost the Israeli government 3.4 billion dollars. In some parts, it is made up of a concrete base with a five-metre high barbed wire superstructure. Rolls of razor wire and a 4 metre-deep ditch are placed on one side. In addition, electronic sensors, cameras and an earth-covered “trace road” are placed beside it. In other parts, the barrier consists of an 8-metre high concrete wall, with armed concrete watchtowers, and a buffer zone of 30-100 m to make way for electric fences, trenches, cameras, sensors and security patrols.

The US considers the security fence problematic because it undermines peace negotiations, and has exerted mild pressure on Israel, such as threatening to withhold loan guarantees. In September 2003, it raised objections to a proposed extension of the fence so as to place many more settlements between the fence and the Green Line. In October, however, the US vetoed a resolution condemning the controversial security barrier. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on Israel to take it down, deeming it counterproductive and an obstacle to the peace process in the Middle East. In late September, the UN issued a report which condemned the barrier as illegal and tantamount to “an unlawful act of annexation”.

In December 2003, the United General Assembly asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to consider the legal consequences of the construction of the barrier in the occupied territories. The court hearings were held between the 23rd and the 25th of February 2004. 44 UN members submitted arguments to court, including Palestinians, the EU, the US, the Arab League and South Africa. Israel, while boycotting the hearing, submitted a written argument claiming the court had no competence to judge what it sees as a politically motivated case. The EU and the US, even though they have criticized the route of the barrier, backed Israel’s opposition to the hearing. The pending court ruling, if one is made, is expected to be issued in several months. Even though it is not binding, many believe it could have a considerable symbolic weight in terms of public opinion and diplomatic relations.