According to the historic Oslo Accords signed by the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) on 13 September 1993, the two sides agreed to postpone the issues which would be most difficult to resolve to final status negotiations. The parties agreed to a five-year interim period, during which authority would gradually be granted to a Palestinian National Authority and negotiations on a final status settlement would begin. Among the issues thus postponed was that of the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, built and expanded by successive Israeli governments throughout the almost thirty years during which Israel has occupied the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Construction in and expansion of these settlements has continued apace throughout the interim period, with the settlement population expanding an estimated 39 percent during the Labour governments administration from 1992-96. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, Israel has confiscated 300,000 dunams in the West Bank. The issue has been lent a new urgency by the public declarations of the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which since its election in May 1996 has vowed to pursue Israels settlement programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territories with renewed vigour. After only one year in power, the Netanyahu government is already responsible for putting almost 19,000 residential units in the bureaucratic pipeline or on the market for sale.
While Israel has come under international pressure to end its controversial settlement program for years, this pressure has intensified since the beginning of the peace process due to the fact that the continued building and expansion of Israeli settlements would appear to violate the letter and the spirit of the Oslo Accords.
Israels settlement programme in the Occupied Territories has been justified both in terms of the historic and religious rights of the Jewish people to the land of Eretz Israel, and as a project for enhancing the states security. Historically, settlements have been aimed at complicating, or even making impossible, any potential peace negotiations. They are designed to make the Jewish presence in the Occupied Territories a permanent reality and to prevent the transfer of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip out of Israeli occupation. Settlements and bypass roads have been built around the major towns and cities of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to block the expansion of these Palestinian population centres, and to inhibit unified political action on the part of the Palestinian population. Israel has pursued its settlement programme with the express goal of making the emergence of an independent Palestinian state a virtual impossibility.
Previous Israeli governments have sought to create a Jewish population in the Occupied Territories large enough to constitute a formidable electoral constituency, capable of exerting considerable pressure on any government contemplating its removal. Today, with a combined Israeli settler population of 350,500 in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, this goal would appear to have been achieved.
Academic researchers and peace activists who monitor Israels settlement programme have tended to concentrate their attention on settlement building in the West Bank, and information on Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip is therefore sparse and often outdated. This is due in large part to the concentration of the overwhelming majority of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem; less than 6,000 Israeli settlers live in the Gaza Strip. The issue of the Gaza settlements has also been neglected due to a widespread assumption that these settlements would be abandoned in a final peace agreement, and that the issue of the West Bank settlements will be much more difficult to resolve.
Although the settler population and the amount of territory at stake is smaller in the Gaza Strip, the tremendous impact these settlements have on the Palestinian residents of Gaza have made this an issue of the utmost importance:
- Settlements contribute to the impoverishment of the one million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, occupying illegally confiscated agricultural land vital to the livelihood of Palestinian farmers and to the Gazan economy as a whole. The absurdly disproportionate distribution of the Gaza Strips scarce resources such as water and land between the Palestinian and Jewish populations of the Gaza Strip cannot be sustained.
- Jewish settlements and the land Israel continues to occupy in order to ensure their security amount to 42 percent of the Gaza Strip. Israel has created settlement blocs, ensuring territorial contiguity between the settlements and increasing the likelihood that Israel will attempt to annex these blocs to Israel in a final status settlement.
- Until the signing of the agreements between the PLO and the Israeli government, the dismantling of Gazas settlements had been discussed with increasing frequency. These agreements guaranteed that no settlement would be removed during the interim period and have in effect sanctioned Israels continuation of its programme of settlement expansion and land confiscation throughout the Occupied Territories. The presence of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip has been solidified.
- Settlements continue to expand at a rapid rate in the Gaza Strip, and Israel continues to confiscate Palestinian land and to finance permanent infrastructure such as bypass roads to serve the settlements. Such actions indicate the intention of the settlers and the Israeli government to make these settlements a permanent reality.
- Occupying the southern third of Gazas Mediterranean coastline, the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the southern Gaza Strip nearly surrounds the major Palestinian towns of Rafah and Khan Younis, preventing their expansion and blocking their access to the sea.
- Heavily armed settlers and Israeli soldiers stationed in Gaza to protect them harass the Palestinian population and destroy their property with virtual impunity, escalating tension in the area and contributing to Palestinian scepticism regarding the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
- Israeli troops have routinely closed roads in the Gaza Strip for the security of Gazas Jewish settlers, causing long detours and inconvenience for the Palestinian population and violating signed agreements.
This report is an attempt to provide an overview of Israels settlement programme in the Occupied Territories and an up-to-date survey of the settlements of the Gaza Strip. Information was gathered, inter alia, from interviews with settlement leaders and officials of the Regional Council of the Gaza Strip, publications issued by the Regional Council and settlements themselves, and testimony from Palestinians whose lives and livelihoods have been affected by the settlements.
The report begins with an overview of Israels settlement programme in the Occupied Territories. The second section is a review of the legal issues this settlement programme entails, and the third section is a comprehensive survey of the Israeli settlements of the Gaza Strip.