One of the thorniest issues facing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiators is undoubtedly the question of Israeli colonies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israeli leaders have maintained that they were entitled to build colonies in the territories which they designate by their biblical name (Judea and Samaria), invoking a historic right over the land which they describe as disputed, not occupied.
The colony issue is further complicated by the Israeli practice of distinguishing between government-authorised colonies, which Israeli leaders consider legal, and non-government-authorised colonies, or outposts, which Israeli governments describe as illegal.
Much of the international community, however, considers the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied territories. Moreover, international law clearly prohibits the transfer of a civilian population to occupied territory. In its 45 years of occupation, Israel has constructed colonies in the Occupied Territories that currently house approximately 500,000 colonists.
The illegality of the colonies has been authoritatively confirmed by a 2004 International Court of Justice opinion with only one out of 15 dissenting votes: ”The Court concludes that the Israeli settlements [colonies] in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (including occupied East Jerusalem) have been established in breach of international law.”
Recent events reported in the Israeli press highlighted the complexity of this issue and the corrosive role it plays in diminishing the prospects of a peaceful settlement.
Last week, the Israeli parliament rejected a bill to retroactively legalise illegal colonies built on private Palestinian land. The bill would have circumvented a Supreme Court decision ordering the removal of five buildings and would, in effect, have legalised the “illegal” colony.
Last month, an Israeli Supreme Court decision ordered the dismantling by August 1 of Migron, an “illegal” outpost of 50 families built on private Palestinian land.
Moreover, Israeli police confirmed that more colonist construction on Palestinian land had been allowed by the Binyamin Regional Council even after it had been ordered to stop such construction by the Israeli Civil Administration.
Documents obtained by Israeli newspaper ‘Haaretz’ indicate that the land had been confiscated for military purposes when in fact it was registered under the name of a Palestinian. The documents also indicated that in 2008, the Binyamin Regional Council had issued a fictitious building permit for the site.
But what the Israeli legislators and Israeli police do not say is that collusion takes place at the highest level of government to try to “legalise” what Israeli leaders call “illegal outposts.” And that notwithstanding occasional rulings by the Israeli judiciary limiting the colony enterprise, all Israeli governments share the same commitment to colony construction as an instrument of expansion and ultimately as a means of shattering the Palestinian society and bringing the 1947-49 war to an end.
The ‘New York Times’ reported last April that the Israeli government itself had retroactively legalised three West Bank colonies and delayed the evacuation of a fourth, which the ‘New York Times’ described as a “provocative move.”
US President Barack Obama himself had stated at the UN General Assembly that the American people do not recognise the legitimacy of Israeli colonies in the Occupied Territories. Yet, the American reaction to the latest provocation was rather mild. The State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said the US was “concerned” and was “seeking clarification” from the Israelis.
“We don’t think this is helpful to the process,” she said, “and we don’t accept the legitimacy of continued settlement [colony] activity,”
A report by the Israeli human rights organisation, Peace Now, listed the many ways Israeli governments have been using to confiscate Palestinian land. It stated that over the years, Israel has been using various legal and bureaucratic procedures to confiscate Palestinian land and use it for building colonies. These included “seizure for military purposes; declaration of state lands; seizure of absentee property”; and “confiscation for public needs and initial registration.” This way, “Israel has managed to take over about 50 per cent of the land in the West Bank.”
Between 1968-1979, Israeli military commanders issued dozens of orders to seize Palestinian land for military purposes. Many of the colonies, established during this first colonisation decade, were built on Palestinian land seized for military purposes.
In 1979, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that privately-owned Palestinian land could not be seized for building colonies. In the Elon More case, the Israeli government argued that the establishment of the Elon More colony was in itself a military necessity.
Remarkably, colonists from Elon More argued before the court that the seizure of the land was not a military necessity, but was a permanent civilian colony, “founded for ideological and political purposes”. The High Court ruled that the establishment of the colony on this land was not consistent with the use of land “seized for military purposes” and instructed that the seizure be cancelled.”
A comprehensive report by the Israeli human rights organisation, BeitSelem, concluded that the colonisation policy created in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a regime based on discrimination “reminiscent of ... the Apartheid regime in South Africa.” This regime allowed Israel to steal hundreds of thousands of dunam of land [one dunam is 900 square metres] from Palestinians. Israel used the colonies, the report continued, to justify many violations of Palestinian human rights such as the right to freedom of movement. “The drastic change that Israel has made in the map of the West Bank,” the report concluded, “prevents any real possibility for the establishment of an independent, viable Palestinian state.”