Since Israel unleashed its brutal bombing campaign in Gaza on October 7 in the wake of a deadly Hamas attack, settler attacks against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem have more than doubled from an average of three to eight incidents a day, according to the United Nations.
The spike in settler attacks have forced hundreds of Palestinians to flee their homes in the past three weeks amid the Israeli bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 9,500 people.
So, who are the settlers and where do they live?
Who are the settlers?
Settlers are Israeli citizens who live on private Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The vast majority of the settlements have been built either entirely or partially on private Palestinian land.
More than 700,000 settlers – 10 percent of Israel’s nearly 7 million population – now live in 150 settlements and 128 outposts dotting the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
A settlement is authorised by the Israeli government while an outpost is built without government authorisation. Outposts can range from a small shanty of a few people to a community of up to 400 people.
Some of the settlers move to the occupied territories for religious reasons while others are drawn by a relatively lower cost of living and financial incentives offered by the government. Ultraorthodox Jews form one-third of all settlers.
A majority of Israeli Jews who live in the West Bank say that the construction of settlements improves the security of the country, according to the Pew Research Center. The argument is that settlements act as a buffer for Israel’s national security as they restrict the movement of Palestinians and undermine the viability of a Palestinian state. However, some on the Israeli left argue that the settlement expansion hurts the two-state solution and thereby Israel’s own prospects for peace.
When were the first settlements built?
Israel started building settlements just after capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in the June 1967 Six-Day War.
In September 1967, the Etzion Bloc in Hebron was the first settlement built in the occupied West Bank. The settlement now hosts 40,000 people.
Kfar Etzion, one of the oldest settlements, houses around 1,000 people while the largest – Modi’in Illit – has around 82,000 settlers, most of them ultraorthodox Jews.
Successive Israeli governments have pursued this policy leading to a rise in settler population in the occupied territories.
About 40 percent of the occupied West Bank land is now controlled by settlements. These settlements — along with a vast network of checkpoints for Palestinians — effectively separate the Palestinian parts of the West Bank from each other, making the prospect of a future contiguous state almost impossible, according to critics.
The first Jewish settlement in Palestine goes back to the early 20th century when Jews facing widespread discrimination, religious persecution and pogroms in Europe started to arrive. Back then Palestine – which was still under British colonial control – was overwhelmingly Arab with a tiny Jewish minority.
Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, was built as a settlement in the suburb of the Arab city of Jaffa in 1909.
The mass migration of Jews to Palestine triggered an Arab uprising. But in the ensuing violence, the well-armed Zionist militias ethnically cleansed 750,000 Palestinians in 1948. Palestinians call their expulsion the Nakba, which is Arabic for catastrophe.
Are settlers backed by the government?
The Israeli government has openly funded and built settlements for Jews to live there.
The Israeli authorities give its settlers in the West Bank some 20 million shekels ($5m) a year to monitor, report and restrict Palestinian construction in Area C, which is over 60 percent of the West Bank. The money is used to hire inspectors and buy drones, aerial imagery, tablets and vehicles among other things.
On April 4, Israeli authorities asked to double that amount in the state budget, to 40 million shekels ($10m).
Over the past few years, the Israeli army has been operating a hotline it calls War Room C, for settlers to call and report Palestinian construction in Area C.
Several Israeli laws enable settlers to seize Palestinian land:
After the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Israeli government officially stopped building new settlements but the existing settlements continued to grow.
The settlement population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem grew from approximately 250,000 in 1993 to nearly 700,000 in September this year.
But in 2017, Israel formally announced the start of new settlements.
Prime Minister Netanyahu – Israel’s longest-serving prime minister – has bolstered settlement expansions since he first came to power in 1996.
There are also Israeli “nongovernmental” organisations that work to evict Palestinians from their land using loopholes in the land laws.
Israeli authorities also regularly seize and demolish Palestinian properties citing the lack of Israeli-issued building permits and land documents.
But international rights groups say acquiring an Israeli building permit is nearly impossible.
Are Israeli settlements legal under international law?
No. All settlements and outposts are considered illegal under international laws as they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bans an occupying power from transferring its population to the area it occupies.
Settlements, activists say, are enclaves of Israeli sovereignty that have fragmented the occupied West Bank, and any future Palestinian state would look like a series of tiny, unconnected South Africa’s former Bantustans, or black-only townships.
The United Nations has condemned them through multiple resolutions and votes. In 2016, a United Nations Security Council resolution said settlements had “no legal validity”.
But the US, Israel’s closest ally, has provided diplomatic cover over the years. Washington has consistently used its veto power at the UN to protect Israel from diplomatic censure.
Israel authorises and encourages settlements. Though it deems outposts as illegal under its laws, Israel has in recent years retrospectively legalised several outposts.
More than 9,000 settlers withdrew from Gaza in 2005 when Israel dismantled settlements as a part of a “disengagement” plan by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
How does Israel keep control of the West Bank?
Israel has built a wall or Separation Barrier that stretches for more than 700km (435 miles) through the West Bank restricting movement of more than 3 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. But Israel says the wall is for security purposes.
Palestinian farmers need to apply for permits to access their own land. These permits need to be renewed repeatedly and can also be denied or revoked without explanation.
For instance, about 270 of the entire 291 hectares that belong to the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin near Bethlehem are designated as Area C, which is under Israeli control. About 60 percent of the occupied West Bank falls under Area C.
Besides the separation wall, over 700 road obstacles are placed across the West Bank including 140 checkpoints. About 70,000 Palestinians with Israeli work permits cross these checkpoints in their daily commute.
Palestinians cannot move freely between the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, and require permits to do so.
Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem have concluded that Israeli policies and laws used to dominate Palestinian people can be described as “apartheid“.
Has settler violence spiked in recent weeks?
Yes. Settlers have carried out more than 198 attacks in the West Bank forcing around 1,000 Palestinians to flee their homes as Israel has continued its relentless bombardment of Gaza, since October 7.
“Settlers have been committing crimes in the occupied West Bank well before October 7. It is as though, however, they got a green light after October 7 to carry out more crimes,” Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian Authority official monitoring settler activity told Al Jazeera.
On October 28, a Palestinian farmer harvesting olives was shot dead by settlers in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus. “We are now during the olive harvest season – people have not been able to reach 60 percent of olive trees in the Nablus area because of settler attacks,” said Daghlas.
Bedouin village of Wadi as-Seeq village in the occupied West Bank was emptied out of its 200 residents on October 12 following threats from settlers.
The current violence comes as last year saw record settler violence, rising from an average of three to eight incidents a day, according to the United Nations.
In recent years settlers have increasingly been trying to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound raising Palestinian concerns that they want to encroach upon Islam’s third holiest site. Jewish prayers are not allowed as per “status quo” governing the Al-Aqsa.
Three days before Hamas carried out a deadly attack inside Israel, settlers stormed the mosque compound. In 2021, Israeli police stormed the mosque compound to facilitate the entry of settlers, triggering a deadly conflict.
In February, far-right settlers went on a rampage in the West Bank town of Huwara torching dozens of houses and cars. Following the violence, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for Huwara to be “wiped out”.
Israeli settler violence has displaced more than 1,100 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank since 2022, according to a UN report released in September 2023.