Middle East

Israel and the Palestinians: Can settlement issue be solved?

Construction work at Israeli settlement of Efrat (Feb 2016) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Palestinians have demanded a halt to settlement activity before any resumption of peace talks

The issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has long been a major source of dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, and most of the international community.

Here is a brief guide to what it is all about.

What are settlements?

Settlements are communities established by Israel on land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

This includes the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The West Bank and East Jerusalem had previously been occupied by Jordan since the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War.

According to the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now, there are 131 settlements in the West Bank, housing about 385,000 Israeli Jewish settlers, and 97 outposts - settlements built without official authorisation.

The group says there are 12 settlements in East Jerusalem, inhabited by about 200,000 settlers.

Israel also established settlements in the Gaza Strip, seized from Egypt in the 1967 war, but it dismantled them when it withdrew from the territory in 2005. It also built settlements in the Sinai Peninsula, seized too from Egypt in 1967, but removed them in 1982 as part of a peace agreement with Cairo.

There are also dozens of settlements on the occupied Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

Built-up settlement areas occupy about 2% of the West Bank but critics point out that the land controlled by settlement activity, such as agriculture and roads, amounts to much more than that and requires heavy military presence.

Settlers themselves choose to live in these communities for a range of reasons - from economic, encouraged by government subsidies, to religious, based on the belief that God gave the land to the Jewish people.

Why are settlements so contentious?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There are dozens of unauthorised settlements, known as outposts, across the West Bank

What happens with settlements has proven to be one of the most intractable issues between Israel and the Palestinians, and rows about them have caused the collapse of numerous rounds of peace talks.

Palestinians say the presence of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - land they seek for a future state - make such a state with contiguous territory impossible. They have demanded Israel freeze all settlement activity as a precondition for resuming peace talks.

Palestinians' freedom of movement is also restricted by hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks and other obstacles used to protect both settlements and Israel from militants.

Israel says the Palestinians are using the issue of settlements as a pretext to avoid direct talks. It says settlements are not a genuine obstacle to peace and are negotiable.

Under the 1993 Israel-Palestinian Oslo peace accords, the issue of settlements was to be deferred until final status talks - a reason why Israel objects to pre-conditions and UN resolutions on the matter.

Will things change under Donald Trump?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Donald Trump's presidency could mean unfettered settlement-building

Almost certainly. President Trump has declared strong support for Israel and signalled a much more tolerant attitude towards settlement activity than his predecessor, Barack Obama. Mr Trump appointed an ambassador to Israel who is a staunch settlement supporter.

The settler movement enthusiastically welcomed Mr Trump's election, and the pro-settler government, emboldened by the new administration, advanced plans for thousands of new settler homes almost as soon as Donald Trump took over.

In the first official statement on the issue, the White House said that while it did not think new, or expanded, settlements would be helpful towards achieving peace, it did not regard "the existence of settlements" as an impediment - putting it out of step with the prevailing view of the international community and previous US policy.

However, in their first meeting since he took office, President Trump said he wanted to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "hold back on settlements for a little bit... we'll work something out".

Under Barack Obama, the US increasingly criticised Israeli settlements, viewing them as incompatible with a two-state solution to the conflict. While settlements grew during the Obama administration, Israel at times shelved building plans, reluctantly, so as not to antagonise its key ally.

What makes Jerusalem a special case?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Israel does not regard places like Har Homa in East Jerusalem as settlements

Even if agreement could be reached on settlements in the West Bank, the issue of settlements in East Jerusalem is even more thorny.

Israel regards East Jerusalem as its eternal, indivisible capital and does not consider the sector in any way occupied - and by extension, it does not regard Jewish neighbourhoods there as settlements.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, in a move not recognised internationally.

While it has previously agreed to temporarily freeze settlement-building in the West Bank, it has ruled out a similar halt in East Jerusalem.

So is a deal on settlements impossible?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Israel demolished its settlements in Gaza before it withdrew in 2005

Not necessarily, despite appearing insurmountable. Israel has said it is prepared to make "painful concessions" for peace, and it has previously shown it will relinquish settlements - such as in Sinai and Gaza, and four small sites in the West Bank in 2005.

It has agreed to negotiate the fate of existing settlements, and Jerusalem, as part of permanent status talks.

Israel has said in any final deal it intends to keep the largest settlement blocs, which are close to the pre-1967 ceasefire line.

This position seemed to get the endorsement of the US under former President George W Bush, who, in a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, said it was "unrealistic" to expect a full withdrawal from the West Bank in a final peace deal.

Opinion among Israeli Jews on whether to withdraw from settlements is fairly even.

According to a June 2016 poll, 43% said they would support pulling out from all but the major settlement blocs as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, as opposed to 46% who said they would vote against a withdrawal.

However, the current Israeli coalition government strongly supports the settler movement and there have been calls by some political figures to annex parts of the West Bank rather than withdraw.

Are settlements illegal under international law?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Israel and the UN have repeatedly clashed over the issue of settlements

Most of the international community, including the UN and the International Court of Justice, say the settlements are illegal.

The basis for this is the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention which forbids the transfer by an occupying power of its people into occupied territory.

However, Israel says the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply de jure to the West Bank because, it says, the territory is not technically occupied.

Israel says it is legally there as a result of a defensive war, and did not take control of the West Bank from a legitimate sovereign power.

It says the legal right of Jewish settlement there as recognised by the 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine was preserved under the UN's charter.

Up until Donald Trump took office, the US had described the settlements as "illegitimate", refraining from calling them "illegal" since the Carter administration in 1980.

A UN Security Council resolution in December 2016 said settlements had "no legal validity and constitute[d] a flagrant violation under international law". However, like previous resolutions on Israel, those adopted under Chapter VI of the UN Charter are not legally binding.