How Israeli Settlements Work

Two men observe the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim in the Palestinian West Bank with the Judean desert in the background. THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Just a few miles to the east of Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Ma'ale Adumim started out as an encampment of two dozen Israeli families in 1975. Today, it's a city of 41,000 residents with a shopping mall, a library, a theater, 15 schools and an industrial park. When a New York Times reporter visited Ma'ale Adumim in early 2017, construction workers were busy at work, adding more homes to the clusters of white buildings in the hills [sources: Fisher, Jewish Virtual Library].

To supporters of the Israeli settlement movement, Ma'ale Adumim is a success story — a prosperous community built on what was once just empty hillside. But to Palestinians — including Bedouins in the Ma'ale Adumim area who've lost access to land where they once raised goats and sheep —such settlements are a threat to their dreams of someday having a Palestinian nation.

Ma'ale Adumim is just one of numerous settlements, communities that Israelis have established on land that Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, including the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. Most of the settlements are in the West Bank, an area that Israel controls but never has formally annexed.

Over the past 50 years, the population of Israeli settlers in areas outside its 1967 borders has grown dramatically. Today, there are nearly 400,000 settlers living in 131 settlements officially sanctioned by the Israeli government, plus another 97 unapproved outposts, according to Peace Now, an Israeli political group opposed to settlements that gathers data on them.

Add to that another 200,000 Israelis who live in East Jerusalem and about 20,000 in the Golan Heights — areas also seized in the 1967 war that Israel eventually annexed — and you've got roughly 600,000 Israelis or 10 percent of Israel's 6.3 million Jewish citizens living outside Israel's pre-war borders [sources: Myre and Kaplow, BBC News].

To the Israeli government and supporters of the movement, including many people in the U.S., the settlements represent Israelis returning to live in places that once were part of ancient Israel, and where Jews lived in the centuries that followed. But to the Palestinians and much of the rest of the world — including 14 nations belonging to the U.N. Security Council who voted in December 2016 to condemn the settlements — they violate international law and are a major obstacle to the long-elusive vision of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution.

In this article, we'll look at the history of the settlements and how they've added to the quandary of lasting Middle East peace.