The consensus of the international community is that Israeli settlements in territory it captured in 1967 are illegal, violating the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel disputes this judgment, contending that the Fourth Geneva Convention, applies only to the occupation of territory of another sovereign state.
The United States has never formally refuted the State Department Legal Adviser’s 1977 judgment that the settlements are, indeed, illegal. But in 1981, President Ronald Reagan stated that, in his opinion, the settlements were not illegal, and since that time, the United States has termed them “unhelpful,” “unnecessarily provocative,” “obstacles to peace,” or similar terms.
After Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, when it began its occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula (later returned to Egypt as part of a peace deal between the two countries), Israeli citizens, sometimes with the help of the government, began establishing settlements in the newly occupied territories. By 2014 there were some 700,000 Israeli Jews living in settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Over the years, Israel has abandoned all of its settlements in the Sinai Peninsula (which was returned to Egypt in a peace agreement) and the Gaza Strip, and even a few in the West Bank.
Settlements are divided into Regional Councils and the land surrounding them is held by those councils for future expansion. Because of this, the area of land designated for settlements is much greater than the land on which each settlement is actually built. Settlements are scattered throughout the West Bank, and the roads connecting them to Israel and to each other, which are off-limits to Palestinians, create a labyrinthine network which severely disrupts Palestinian traffic and often turns what should be a short journey from one Palestinian town to another into a long, circuitous trip.
Israeli settlers in the West Bank live under Israeli civil law, while Palestinians are governed by Israeli military laws. The two different legal systems for two peoples in the same place play into the characterization of Israel as an “apartheid state,” a terminology often used to describe, and diminish the legitimacy of Israel by its detractors.
Israeli settlers are usually armed and often clash with the neighboring Palestinians, sometimes while being protected by Israeli soldiers or police. The settlements they live in have often been built on land expropriated from the Palestinians, in some cases from private Palestinian landowners, a practice which continues despite being illegal even under Israeli law.
Israel insists that the settlements are not the reason that negotiations for a two- state solution have failed thus far. Palestinians have seen peace talks produce very little while the settler population has grown by more than four times over the past twenty years. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, including the United States, has repeatedly identified Israel’s settlement expansion as a significant reason that efforts at reaching an agreement have failed thus far.