This week, Israelis and Palestinians came together again for the first time in three years in an attempt to reach peace. According to the U.S. State Department, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed peace talks in Jersusalem this past Wednesday August 14. Hours before the peace talks began, Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners as a good faith gesture before both sides sat down at the negotiating table. Unfortunately, that good faith gesture came along with Israel’s announcement of its plan to build up to 900 new housing units in East Jerusalem. Jerusalem is widely known as the hopeful capital of a future Palestinian state.
All talks and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians will focus in one way or another on existing and continually built settlements. So one must ask: When Israel builds these settlements, should it be considered illegal?
This map details the Israeli settlements in question, located in the West Bank. Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip were evacuated in September 2005.
Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibits the transfer of parts of a state’s population into territories it occupies. The authoritative commentary of the convention drafted by the International Committee of the Red Cross states its purpose was to prevent colonization of occupied territories. The language prohibits “any and all” population transfers from the occupying power to occupied territory. In 2004, the International Court of Justice unanimously found that Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine exist in breach of Article 49. Just for relativity’s sake, you are more likely to find a herd of unicorns speaking Latin with the pope than obtain a unanimous decision from the International Court of Justice. It is extremely rare.
In 1948, when Israel declared its independence, its borders were not clearly defined. After the war of 1947-1949, Israel possessed about 78% of Palestine. Between the time of the Partition Plan and the declaration of the state of Israel on the 78% of Palestine, the newly formed Jewish state had created at least 726,000 Palestinian refugees.
In 1967, Israel occupied the remaining 22% of historic Palestine, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. From 1967 onward, Israel has transferred many of its citizens to settlements and this has resulted in approximately 40% of the West Bank remaining off-limits to Palestinians: They cannot live there, they cannot drive on Israel-only roads connecting the settlements, and they cannot travel through the security zones surrounding the settlements.
The West Bank and Gaza Strip are examples of precisely the types of transfers Article 49 intended to prevent and it can be confirmed by several sources. U.S. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki offered the following sentiment concerning the settlements: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlements activity and opposes efforts to legitimize settlement outpost.”
Theodor Meron, a legal advisor to Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs, advised the government in this September 1967 opinion that the settlements in the newly occupied territories were in contravention of Article 49. International law, Israeli legal counsel, and the U.S. — Israel’s greatest ally — are all in agreement that the settlements are illegal.
It is the same story each time the two sides meet, but when Israel and the international community cannot come to an understanding about the settlements, any sort of sustainable peace is simply not feasible. Two state solution or not, common ground regarding the settlements must be reached. The announcement of the 900 new settlements will cast a dark shadow over these peace talks. Although Palestine was granted observer status by the UN in 2012, a two-state solution is a pipe dream with the current structure and existence of the settlements.