Home » What are the “Occupied Territories” and the Israeli settlements?

What are the “Occupied Territories” and the Israeli settlements?

by backpackisrael
16 minutes read

These days, everyone is talking about the war between Israel and Hamas. The war started with the attack of Hamas on October 7th, when they broke into Israel and murdered around 1,200 Israelis, including children, women, and the elderly. But Palestinian terrorists have been killing Israelis for a long time, not only since October 7th. And when they kill us, they say that it is because we stole their land and we are “settlers,” although most of us have been born here. So, in this post, I want to tell you more about the Israeli settlements and what exactly are the “occupied territories.” I’ll cover the definition according to International Law, explain why the Israeli settlements exist, and also provide some insights regarding the Palestinian definition of “occupied land” and “settlers.”  

Head image credit: iStock

How do Palestinians define “settlers”?  

A few days ago, I saw an interview with senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan on NRK from November 2023The Norwegian interviewer showed Hamdan a video (at 3:16) that the Hamas terrorists themselves took as they shot toward civilian houses and asked: “This is also your fighters entering one of the communities, shooting at houses. Does this look like a military target to you?” After a short ping-pong, Hamdan responded: “Those are settlers. According to the international law, they are not civilians. They are settlers.” The interviewer asked: “And therefore, it’s allowed to kill them?” Hamdan replied: “No, it’s not allowed. If they shoot you, there will be a shooting back against them. They start shooting…” The interviewer asked: “But what do you expect to do, sir? If your house is attacked by someone who is shooting you…”

Let’s set aside the fact that most of the people in those Israeli communities were unarmed. As I said, many of them were children, women, and elderly, and therefore were not the ones who opened fire. Hamdan said that they are all settlers and that, according to international law, they are not civilians. But the law says differently. According to international law, the Israeli settlements are the settlements that were built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem following 1967. In the past, there were also settlements in the Gaza Strip, but the Israeli government removed them in 2005. If you look at the map, you’ll see that the area attacked by Hamas on October 7th is very far from the West Bank and Jerusalem. It is in the Western Negev, outside the borders of the Gaza Strip. So, the people in those communities are not settlers according to International Law. They are Israeli civilians.

But Hamas and some other Palestinians don’t really care about the exact definition. For them, the entire State of Israel is occupied, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and therefore, all Israelis are settlers and need to leave or live under Palestinian rule (which will most likely be Muslim law). Those who live in Be’eri, those who live in Tel Aviv, and those who live in Haifa–for many Palestinians, they are all settlers. And if we are all settlers, we are all legitimate targets.

You can watch this video from the Ask Project to get a sense of what I’m talking about:

Why do Palestinians think that the entire country is occupied territory?

To understand this, we need to go back to 1948 or even to 1947. At that time, there was no sovereign state in the region called Palestine or the Land of Israel. The British controlled Mandatory Palestine as part of their regional mandate but planned to leave it. So, they requested the UN to find a solution for the two inhabitants of the land – the Jews and the Arabs. On November 26th, 1947, the UN adopted the Partition Plan for Palestine, which proposed to divide the region into two states: a Jewish state and an Arab state. Jerusalem and Bethlehem were supposed to be international zones because of their importance to all religions and nations. Read more about the Partition Plan here.

In 1947, there were approximately 1,180,500 Muslims and 630,000 Jews in Mandatory Palestine. The Partition Plan proposed that the Jewish state will cover approximately 55% of Mandatory Palestine and that the Arab state will cover approximately 45%. The Arabs were not happy with this plan for many reasons. One of them was because they were a larger population and therefore believed that they should get more percentage of the land. However, it is important to note that the partition was determined based on the map of Arab and Jewish settlements that existed in 1947. Many areas, such as the area of the Negev, had no established Arab settlements in 1947 but did have Jewish settlements and were therefore intended for the Jewish state.

In any case, the Palestinian Arabs did not accept the Partition Plan. They started the 1948 War, which would later become known as the Independence War or “the Nakba,” which means “Disaster” in Arabic, depending on who you ask.

During the war, many Palestinian Arabs fled from their towns and villages. In most cases, it was because they had heard rumors and were afraid of what might happen to them if the Israeli army arrived. They fled before any Israeli soldier set foot in their towns. The Arab armies promised them that they would defeat the Jews and that, later, they would be able to return safely to their houses. The reality was that Israel won the war and gained control of 75% of the land, as opposed to the 55% that was proposed in the Partition Plan. It also demolished around 400 Arab villages that were abandoned during the war. Around 700 thousand Arab Palestinians became refugees and remained in refugee camps in the West Bank and the neighboring Arab countries.

So, the Arabs believe that the Partition Plan was wrong and that they were supposed to receive the entire region of Palestine because they claim that they are the native people and that the Jews came from Europe. The truth is that many ancestors of Arabs living in the region today immigrated to the area from other places during the Ottoman period, just like many Jews immigrated to the area. Both Jews and Arabs have been living in this region for ages and see it as their home, so it made sense to divide the region as proposed in the Partition Plan. But still, the Arabs believe that the entire State of Israel is occupying their rightful territory, and many of them do not recognize Israel as a country. International Law sees things differently and recognizes Israel in its borders prior to 1967.  

The Partition Plan map
The Partition Plan map

What are the Occupied Territories according to International Law?

According to International Law, the occupied territories are the areas beyond the “Green Line,” the borders that existed from 1949 to the 1967 Six-Day War. During the 1967 war, Israel took control of those areas – East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. By the way, they were not under Palestinian control when Israel came into the picture. East Jerusalem and the West Bank were under Jordanian control, while Gaza was under Egyptian control, but most people living there were local Arabs who identified as Palestinians. Jordan had annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1950, but the annexation was considered illegal by the majority of the international community. Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip until it lost in the 1967 War.

There was no legitimate sovereign in those areas when Israel captured them in 1967, but because they were promised to the Palestinian Arabs as part of the Arab state in the 1947 Partition Plan, the international community sees them as the ones who should control the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Read more >> Is Palestine a country?

Since Israel took control of those areas in 1967, it was called the “Occupying Power.” Until 1988, Jordan still claimed the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but then it renounced it for the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization).  

There are many clauses in the International Law regarding the “Occupying Power” and “Occupied Territories.” Here are the two points that are relevant to our discussion:

  • The Occupying Power cannot acquire sovereignty over the territory.
  • It is not allowed to transfer the civilian population of the Occupying Power into the Occupied Territory.

According to International Law, occupation can come to an end when the Occupying Power withdraws or is driven out of the Occupied Territories. It could also end if the Occupying Power and the local government come to a legal agreement regarding the territory, such as a peace treaty. Because the Palestinians do not have a legitimate government that is agreed upon by all Palestinian parties, it is difficult to reach an agreement. It is also difficult to reach an agreement because the Palestinians have a different definition for “the occupied territories,” like I have mentioned earlier. The closest thing to an agreement that exists today in the West Bank is the Oslo Accords, which divide the West Bank into three areas – one controlled completely by the Palestinian Authority (A), one jointly controlled by the Palestinians and the Israelis (B), and one controlled by the Israelis (C). I might write a separate post about it because it’s a big topic. 

So, what are the Israeli settlements?

After the Six-Day War ended, the Israeli government faced a dilemma. On the one hand, it wanted to use the West Bank as a buffer between Israel and its hostile neighbors. On the other hand, they didn’t really want to add the Palestinians living there to the list of Israeli citizens because they wanted to preserve the Jewish identity of the state. So, Israel only annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 but did not annex the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. But in any case, the majority of the international community does not recognize the annexation of East Jerusalem. It means that all the Israeli neighborhoods that were built beyond the “Green Line” – in East Jerusalem – are recognized as illegal settlements. These include Pisgat Ze’ev, Gilo, Neve Yaakov, and East Talpiot. 

Israel didn’t annex the West Bank but did start building settlements there because of security and historical reasons, which I’ll discuss later. The first Israeli settlement built in the West Bank was Kfar Etzion, a Jewish settlement that existed prior to 1948 and was restored after the Six-Day War. It was established on September 27th, 1967, about 3.5 months after the end of the war. The first Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip was Kfar Darom, re-established in 1970 on the ruins of a former village. But most of the Israeli settlements were built between 1977 to 1986, when the right-wing Likud party was in power.

Today, there are two types of Israeli settlements in the West Bank:

  • Settlements that are legal according to Israeli law and have been built based on a governmental plan. There are around 150 settlements like this in the West Bank. These include large cities such as Ariel and Ma’ale Adummim. The residents of those settlements are usually a mix of religious and non-religious Israelis.
  • “Outposts,” which are illegal settlements according to the Israeli law. They are built without prior governmental approval. It is hard to tell the exact number of outposts since the government destroys some of them after establishment, while others are approved after some time. It is estimated that there are about 80-140 outposts in the West Bank today, located in Areas B and C. Usually, the residents of those outposts are nationalist-religious Jewish Israelis, who want to ensure Jewish presence in the West Bank, which they see as part of the Promised Land.

According to the International Law, there is no difference. All the Israeli settlements are illegal because, as we’ve already mentioned, the Occupying Power is not allowed to transfer its civilian population into the Occupied Territory.

There are no more Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, because Israel withdrew from that area in 2005 as part of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. Still, most of the international community keeps defining the Gaza Strip as “occupied territory” because they claim that Israel controls it using technological means. Personally, I think that if Hamas was able to commit its dreadful attack on October 7th, Israel didn’t really have control over what was going on in the Gaza Strip. With no Israeli presence and plenty of funds that were transferred into Gaza, Hamas, who was the governing entity in the Gaza Strip, could have greatly improved the lives of the Gazans. Instead, they chose to prepare for a war against Israel. 

In the map below, you can see the “Occupied Territories” and see where there is Palestinian Authority control and where there is Israeli control. The map was created in 2007 and clearly shows that Gaza is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, or more precisely, Hamas. 

How does Israel justify settlements?

The Israeli society is split between those who support the establishment of Israeli settlements to those who believe that they are a challenge for peace in the region. In this post, I’m going to discuss only the supporters’ side, but you should be aware that it is a controversial topic in Israel.

So, the Israeli settlements are illegal according to International Law. But Israel doesn’t see it that way. First of all, the Israeli government does not refer to the West Bank as “occupied territory.” Instead, it calls it a “disputed territory.” Therefore, according to the Israeli government, the laws applied in “occupied territories” are not relevant to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Israeli governments claim that it is not occupied territory because there was no legitimate sovereign in the West Bank and East Jerusalem when Israel took control of it in 1967. As I’ve mentioned before, the West Bank was under illegal Jordanian control, and there was no Palestinian authority or government at that time.   

On the other hand, Israel’s Supreme Court has stated that Israel is controlling the West Bank under “belligerent occupation” but that the occupation is temporary and will be over once the Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement.  

In any case, there are two main reasons for Israel building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem:

  • Security reason – The supporters say that the settlements block Palestinian terrorists from reaching central cities in Israel. They are the first line of defense. And because there are Israeli settlements, there are also Israeli security forces who need to be positioned in the West Bank to protect those settlements. They claim that the presence of those security forces also reduces terrorism. After October 7th, some people said that if there were still Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, the attack would not have happened.
  • Historical connection – The second reason is connected to history. In Hebrew, we call the West Bank “Judea and Samaria.” The Jews have been living in Judea and Samaria for hundreds of years, and the region is filled with archeological sites and ancient tombs connected to the Jewish past. These include the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the biblical city of Shiloh, and Joseph’s Tomb near Nablus. Those who support the settlements say that the Jewish people have a right to live in the land of their ancestors.

Conclusion

Everyone sees the Israeli settlements differently. International Law sees the areas beyond the “Green Line” as Occupied Territories, and the Israeli settlements that are built there are seen as illegal settlements. The Israeli government refers to those areas as “disputed territories” and, therefore, does not see all of the settlements as illegal. And many Palestinians see all the Israelis as settlers, no matter if they live in the West Bank, Tel Aviv, the Galilee, the Negev, or Haifa. So, when you ask, “What are the Occupied Territories,” you’ll get a different answer depending on who you ask.

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Yours,

Lior

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