The bitter legacy of Israel’s West Bank settlement

  • Themes: Israel, Palestine

Since 1967, the West Bank has been both a security problem and an emotional touchstone for religious Jews, while its settlement continues to poison relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Could a wiser policy have prevailed?

A Jewish settler in Hebron.
A Jewish settler in Hebron. Credit: Eitan Simanor / Alamy Stock Photo

During the Ottoman era, from 1517 to 1917, and the British rule in Palestine which began in 1917 and lasted until 1948, Jews hardly settled in the region now known as the West Bank, the land abutting the western bank of the river Jordan, the heartland of old Palestine. Instead, religious Jews, emigrating to Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel, settled mainly in the four holy cities (Jerusalem, Tzefat, Tiberias, or Hebron) – while secular Zionist pioneers established themselves mainly along the Mediterranean coastal plain and the Jezreel Valley, which received more rainfall, and where it was simpler to purchase land. Eastern Palestine, where soil is less fertile and ownership more evenly distributed among Palestinians, all generally reluctant to sell to outsiders, was not an attractive destination for Jewish settlement.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel seized vast Arab lands, including the West Bank, these areas became an irresistible destination for Israeli settlers: first, because some felt strong religious connections to the area, regarding it as ancestral Eretz Yisrael, promised to the Jewish people by God; second, because while in Israel proper there remained little land available for settlement – and what was available was in undesired areas such as in the Negev desert and Galilee – the occupied West Bank offered large empty tracts awaiting settlement.

In contrast to the general view, which is that West Bank settlement was the brainchild of Israel’s right-wing Likud party, the first settlements were established by Labor governments that ruled Israel, continuously, from the establishment of the State in 1948 until the emergence of Likud as a major player in 1977. Put differently, in the first decade of the Israeli West Bank occupation, settlements were set up by centre and centre-left governments. But what sort of settlements did Labor have in mind?

After the 1967 war, the driving force for settling the occupied lands was Israel’s deputy prime minister, Yigal Allon. As a former general, Allon was chiefly concerned with national security, which he believed could be guaranteed by the building of settlements in the West Bank. In his ‘Allon Plan’ of 13 July 1967, he proposed that Israel annex a strip of land, between six and nine miles wide, along the western bank of the river Jordan, and establish a dense belt of settlements there. These villages, combined with the physical barrier of the river, would create a buffer against the threat of an attack by the ‘Eastern Front’, made up of three traditional enemies of Israel: Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. While Israel would annex the strip of land adjacent to the river, it would not annex the rest of the West Bank, instead letting its Palestinian population stay where they were and rule themselves as an autonomous region. Later, Allon amended his plan, suggesting that the Palestinian-populated West Bank, which Israel would not annex, should be given to King Hussein of Jordan, linked to his Hashemite kingdom by a corridor near the town of Jericho.

The then Israeli defence minister, Moshe Dayan, opposed Allon’s plan. They were political rivals, but Dayan also felt that squeezing the West Bankers between a line of settlements and Israel was unworkable; so instead, Dayan proposed his own West Bank settlement plan. He argued that the mountain ridge that runs along the centre of the West Bank, rather than the lowlands along the river, was the strategic land Israel needed for its security. He, therefore, proposed building ‘fists’ – blocks of settlements – on the mountains further to the west and away from the river, each one adjacent to a military base, and all linked to Israel by a system of roads. Israel, in line with Dayan’s idea, would continue to control the West Bank – but the Palestinians living on it would continue to be subjects of Jordan, as they had been since the annexation of this area by King Abdullah in 1950. Unlike in the ‘Allon plan’, the Palestinians would not feel ‘sandwiched’ between Jewish settlements along the river and Israel proper, and might therefore find Israeli occupation less intrusive, as they could still move freely across the river to Jordan and back without seeing Israelis on the way; Dayan was a proponent of what he called ‘invisible occupation’. While the Labor government, for a variety of reasons, rejected Dayan’s settlement programme, it never formally adopted the ‘Allon Plan’, as it wished to remain vague on its territorial aspirations. Nonetheless, the ‘Allon Plan’ became the unofficial blueprint for settlement-building under successive Labor governments.

Since new settlements required land free of people, the government proceeded to compose a legal-bureaucratic set of laws that could allow the ‘legal’ acquisition of Palestinian land. The idea was to set up a legal system whereby land could be converted from private to state property, handed over to the military, and then to settlers. The main foundation for this system became the British Emergency Law (1945) and the Law of Closed Areas (1949), which permitted the army to close off any area of land for military manoeuvres for undefined periods. Similarly, the Israeli Land Acquisition Law (1953) permitted the state to confiscate uncultivated land by its Palestinian owners to be used by the military.

There were other methods of seizing Palestinian land for settlement building, such as declaring it ‘absentee property’; Military Order No.58 defines absentee property as ‘property whose legal owner… left the area before [its occupation by the IDF on] 7 June 1967…’ Subsequently, Israel registered 7.5 per cent of the West Bank as absentee property; much of it belonged to West Bankers who either became refugees because of the war and crossed the river, mainly into Jordan or perhaps were away from the West Bank during the war and later were prohibited from returning.

As the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) prohibits the transfer of the occupier’s civilian population into territories under its occupation but does allow military personnel into these areas, the government turned to the Nahal Brigade – a military unit combining active military service with civilian service. Wearing uniforms, they were tasked with erecting ghost ‘military camps’ on Palestinian land that had been confiscated for ‘military purposes’, and when these camps were facts on the ground, they were transferred into civilian hands – allowing Jewish settlers to move in and take over.

Despite the range of laws supposedly enabling Palestinian land to be confiscated for settlement building, Israel’s policy during the first decade of the occupation was, by and large, and compared to what would come later, restricted. The rule of thumb was that settlements should be erected away from Palestinian population centres, with the main consideration in approving settlements building being national security. There were some ‘special cases’; one of those, in Hebron, was, perhaps, the most notorious, a sign of things to come.

Hebron, just south of Jerusalem, has always been a sacred place for both Muslims and Jews. Throughout the centuries a small Jewish community has lived among the Arab population. During riots in August 1929, however, 67 Jews were killed by Arabs there, and synagogues destroyed. The survivors relocated to Jerusalem, where they stayed until, in 1931, 31 families returned to Hebron to re-establish their community. On 26 April 1936, fearing repeated bloodshed, the Mandatory British authorities evacuated the Jewish families, sending them back to Jerusalem. Another 31 years later, on the fourth day of the 1967 war, Israeli troops captured Hebron and, with Jews wishing to re-establish their community, pressure mounted on the government to allow them to return.

On 12 April 1968, 40 religious Jews arrived at Hebron to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover. The military commander in charge of Hebron, General Uzi Narkiss, allowed them to enter on condition that they leave the town straight after Passover. With permission granted, they settled into the small El Haled hotel, which was run by the Palestinian Qawasmi family. When Passover was over, instead of leaving Hebron as agreed, the newcomers hoisted an Israeli flag over the hotel, announcing they would settle in the town for good. On 21 April, Hebron’s mayor, Muhammad Ali al-Jaabri, wrote to the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, complaining about the group’s intrusion, demanding that the government take action to evacuate the intruders. They were allowed to stay, and later, following a period of negotiations, the government agreed for them to relocate to a military compound at the edge of town. In 1970, under mounting pressure by ministers sympathetic to the settlers, the government agreed to let the Hebron settlers establish a settlement just east of Hebron’s centre. Subsequently, Kiriath Arba was built on private land expropriated from its Palestinian owner for ‘security reasons’. At first, a ‘military base’ was set up there and, in 1971, after 250 houses had been built and water and electricity connected, settlers started moving into the settlement.

When Dayan, in conversation with the settlers, urged them not to raise their children to hate Arabs, the settlers replied: ‘The Arabs must know that there is a master here – the Jewish people. It rules over Eretz Yisrael… The Arabs are temporary dwellers who happened to live in this country.’ With that, the emerging settler movement had scored a highly visible victory, which, as Dayan put it, had ‘dangerous implications for the future’, as it demonstrated that a small but committed group of people could impose its will on the government. Indeed, the Hebron affair set a precedent for future wildcat occupations by settler groups elsewhere on the West Bank, a practice that continues. As for Kiriath Araba, at the time of writing, it boasts more than 7,000 settlers, many of whom are by far the most extreme of the settlers on the West Bank.

Who were these new ‘settlers’ – the ‘Mitnachalim’, as they are known in Hebrew? In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, many of them came from across Israeli society and included men and women, secular and religious, left and right-wing. As I grew up in Israel, my father, who was secular and a Labor supporter, would often refer to these early settlers as ‘Haluzim’, meaning ‘pioneers’, and he admired them for their stubbornness and willingness to sacrifice. Gradually, however, things changed, particularly, with the birth in 1974 of ‘Gush Emunim’, (‘the Bloc of Faithful’), many of whose members were religious. Convinced that the Jewish people had historic rights over Judea and Samaria and that by settling this historic homeland the Jews would come nearer salvation, this movement was determined to speed up the pace of settling these lands. Gush Emunim was given a tremendous boost when, in 1977, a right-wing Likud government came to power for the first time in Israel’s history, headed by Menachem Begin.

Begin was a great believer in the right of Jews to settle in all parts of biblical Eretz Yisrael, the heart of which was the West Bank, to which he would only ever refer by its biblical name, ‘Judea and Samaria’. This name had been officially adopted soon after the 1967 war, when the West Bank military governor issued an order stating that, ‘the Judea and Samaria Region’ should be identical to ‘the West Bank Region’, the latter seen as linking the area with the Jordan’s East Bank, thus implying Jordanian sovereignty.

By referring publicly to ‘Judea and Samaria’, Begin attempted to link past and future, implying that these lands were inseparable parts of Israel, which had, as spelled out in the Likud Platform, to be settled by ‘both urban and rural settlements’. It was notable that upon his election as prime minister, Begin paid a visit to Rabbi Zvi Kook, the spiritual leader of the Gush Emunim movement, which became the main source of West Bank settlers. To implement his settlement policies, Begin appointed Ariel Sharon, a former army general, known as ‘the bulldozer’, as head of the ministerial committee responsible for settlement in the occupied territories.

Subsequently, Sharon embarked on an ambitious plan to settle the occupied territories, particularly the West Bank; unlike Labor governments, which had been careful to only settle in strategic areas deemed necessary for the defence of Israel, Sharon’s settlement drive was directed at building Jewish settlements across the West Bank. The aim was to weaken the Palestinian hold on the land and shift the demographic balance in favour of Israel. Rather than establish settlements away from Arab towns and villages, as Labor did, Sharon encouraged the building of villages close to areas of extensive Arab habitation. Such an aggressive and intrusive settlement campaign would impede any prospect of a Palestinian state being established by ensuring that there was no Palestinian territorial continuity.

Fast forward to 2005, and, ironically, it was the same Sharon who, as prime minister of Israel, dismantled all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and also withdrew from four Jewish settlements on the West Bank; the latter was a bold move and disappointed many settlers. Was Sharon’s withdrawal from the four West Bank settlements a hint that he was ready to evacuate even more settlements in preparation for the emergence of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip? We will never know, as at a critical juncture, Sharon became very ill and later died. And since then, history has taken a different course.

In 2022, for the first time in Israel’s history, far-right religious settlers were appointed to key governmental positions in Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration. The two notable appointments were Itamar Ben Gvir, a settler from Kirtath Arba, and Bezalel Smotrich from the West Bank settlement of Kedumim. Ben Gvir, was appointed minister of national security, and Smotrich was made finance minister and the government’s West Bank overlord, through a special ministerial role created for him in the defence ministry. The two do not hide their views regarding the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank which they want expanded.

Smotrich talks about ‘a victory through settlement’, by which he means swamping the West Bank with ‘tens and hundreds of thousands of residents [who would] come to live in Judea and Samaria’. He has instructed representatives in various government ministries to embark on preparations for doubling the settler population in the West Bank, which would take the total to one million. The vast infrastructure developments that are underway, seen all over the West Bank, show that the trajectory is already set for a massive jump in the settler population and in the number of settlements built on Palestinian land. Since the start of 2023, the government has advanced the planning of over 12,000 new housing units in settlements across the West Bank; more than 7,000 of which have already been approved for construction.

At the time of writing, there are 127 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and 121 smaller outposts, the combined size of both representing 2.4 per cent of the total West Bank area. Smotrich’s ambitious goal to increase the number of West Bank settlements and bring yet another half a million settlers to live in them may not be achieved; however, the suffering that the settlement project has inflicted on the Palestinians over the last 57 years – the dispossession and displacement – remains a heartbreaking and bitter legacy.


Ahron Bregman