How Israeli Settlements Work

What Is a Settlement?
Cranes hover at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Ramot, built in a suburb of mostly Arab East Jerusalem. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

A settlement might sound like a hastily erected camp with a few temporary dwellings. And some actually are. In the early 2010s, British journalist Jake Wallis Simons visited a hilltop settlement (actually an outpost) in the Judean desert, where two dozen people lived, as he put it, "in a rickety assortment of caravans, shacks and tents," surviving off the fruit and vegetables that they grew.

But those squatters are the exception. Many of the communities that have sprung up over the past half century are developed to the point that they're more like suburbs — or in the case of Ma'ale Adumim, small cities, full of middle-class homes with lawns, parks, schools and businesses [source: Myre and Kaplow].

Settlers choose to live in these communities for a variety of motivations. Some believe that they're carrying out the will of God, who according to the Hebrew Bible, gave the land to the Jewish people. Others may want to benefit from economic subsidies that the Israeli government provides to settlers, including attractive mortgage terms and discounts on land purchases. According to an Israeli business publication, government aid of various sorts to the settlements amounted to $271 million in 2015 alone, not including money spent on roads and infrastructure projects [source: Magal].

One of the trickiest parts in the settlement issue is ownership of the land upon which settlements have been built. For a long time, the Israeli government maintained that most had been built on untitled property called "state land" it had taken control of after the 1967 war, or else on land whose ownership was unclear, thanks to Jordan's incomplete record-keeping [sources: Wilson, Harris].

However, a 2007 study by Peace Now, which sifted through government data, concluded that nearly a third of the land used by settlements was actually private land clearly owned by Palestinians. While Israeli authorities have shut down settlements that encroached on Palestinian-owned property, in February 2017 Israel's parliament passed a law that retroactively legalized numerous illegal settlements [source: Fisher].