International law and the legality of settlements

Israelis clashing with Palestinians on Oct 26 at a protest against the setting-up of an Israeli outpost in the Jordan Valley. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Israelis clashing with Palestinians on Oct 26 at a protest against the setting-up of an Israeli outpost in the Jordan Valley. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • The Trump administration's declaration that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are "not inconsistent with international law" reversed US policy on the settlements and contradicted the view of most countries.

Who is right? What does international law say? What difference does the United States' announcement make? Here is a brief guide.


The United Nations General Assembly, the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice have all said that Israeli settlements in the West Bank violate the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war and has occupied the territory ever since.

The Fourth Geneva Convention, which was ratified by 192 nations in the aftermath of World War II, says that an occupying power "shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies".

The statute that established the International Criminal Court in 1998 classifies such transfers, as well as any destruction or appropriation of property not justified by military necessity, as war crimes.

Israel argues that a Jewish presence has existed in the West Bank for thousands of years and was recognised by the League of Nations in 1922.

Jordan's rule over the territory, from 1948 to 1967, was never recognised by most of the world, so Israel also argues there was no legal sovereign power in the area and therefore the prohibition on transferring people from one state to the occupied territory of another does not apply.

The International Court of Justice rejected that argument in an advisory opinion in 2004, ruling that the settlements violated international law.

The Israeli Supreme Court and the government do consider settlement construction on privately owned Palestinian land to be illegal.

Under the Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s, both sides agreed that the status of Israeli settlements would be resolved by negotiation.

However, negotiations have stalled and there have been no active peace talks since 2014.


Israel has built about 130 formal settlements in the West Bank since 1967. A similar number of smaller, informal settlement outposts have gone up since the 1990s without government authorisation but usually with some government support.

More than 400,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank alongside more than 2.6 million Palestinians.

Some of the settlements are home to religious Zionists who believe that the West Bank, which Israel refers to by its biblical names of Judea and Samaria, is their biblical birthright.

Many secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews also moved there largely for cheaper housing.

Some settlements were strategically located in line with Israel's security interests. Other more isolated communities were established for ideological reasons, including an effort to prevent a contiguous Palestinian state.

Israel also captured East Jerusalem in 1967, and annexed it.

The Palestinians demand East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, and much of the world still considers it occupied territory.

Most of the world views the expansion of Israeli settlements as an impediment to a peace agreement.

While most blueprints for a peace agreement envisage a land swop - Israel retains the main settlement blocs, where a majority of the settlers live, and hands over other territories to the Palestinians - the more remote and populated the settlements, the harder that becomes.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently fighting to remain in power after two inconclusive elections, has promised to annex the settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley, constituting up to a third of the West Bank.

In June, the US Ambassador to Israel, Mr David Friedman, said that Israel had a right to retain at least some of the West Bank.

The Trump administration's declaration may be seen by supporters of the settlement enterprise as giving a green light to Israeli annexation plans. But Israeli experts cautioned that might not be the case.

"It's one thing saying the settlements are not in violation of international law and another to say whether they are good for peace or not," said Mr Michael Herzog, an Israel-based fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Trump administration neither rejected nor endorsed Mr Netanyahu's annexation proposal, he said, and it remains "an open question" of how it would react if Israel unilaterally annexed West Bank territory.

He and others said that while the policy change could affect the public perception of the settlements, the legal question would have little bearing on a comprehensive peace deal, which is ultimately a political act.

"The settlements are an agreed-upon issue for negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians," said Mr Alan Baker, a former legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

"It's an issue that has yet to be negotiated."

But in the absence of negotiations, the US policy could be used to justify even more settlement construction.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2019, with the headline 'International law and the legality of settlements'. Print Edition | Subscribe