Based on a report by Shaul Arieli

West Bank Settlements

Settlements are Israeli civilian communities, overwhelmingly inhabited by Jews1, in territories acquired by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War that are not under Israeli sovereignty.

While Israeli settlements previously existed in Sinai and the Gaza Strip prior to Israel’s withdrawal from those territories (in 1982 and 2005, respectively), today the term is largely used to refer to Israeli communities in the West Bank (also known as Judea and Samaria).2

1 There are 33 settlements with registered Arab residents. Ariel has the largest Arab population out of the settlements, with 573 Arab residents (mostly Ariel University students.) Several others, including Maale Adumim, Kfar Etzion, and Giv’at Ze’ev, have a few dozen (Shaul Arieli, Deceptive Appearances, 99). 

2 Some also refer to Israeli communities in the Golan and neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as settlements, but given that Israel has annexed these areas, such communities do not function as settlements under Israeli law.


West Bank Settlements (Legal Under Israeli Law)


Jews Living in West Bank Settlements


Jews Living in Illegal West Bank Outposts

Source: Peace Now

The large settlement of Maale Adumim, located east of Jerusalem

There are 127 settlements in the West Bank that have legal status under Israeli law.

Legal settlements must be built on state land, have building permits from the government, and be established by a government resolution. Settlements that do not meet those criteria are West Bank outposts, which are illegal under Israeli law. Most of the world also considers settlements to be illegal under international law. 

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 451,700 Jews living in West Bank settlements as of the year 2020. Between 20,000 and 30,000 more live in illegal West Bank outposts. All settlements are located in Area C, the 60% of the West Bank controlled by Israel. Given that Israel has not annexed the West Bank, Jewish settlements in the territory are not considered by Israel to be under its sovereignty. Emergency regulations renewed every five years extend Israeli criminal and some civil law to Israeli citizens in the West Bank.

Today, one-third of settlers are Haredim, one-third are secular, and the remaining third are religious Zionists.

The Haredi settlement of Beitar Illit

Goals of the Settlement Enterprise

In allowing and encouraging the establishment of Jewish communities in the West Bank, a disputed territory over which Israel does not exercise sovereignty, the Israeli government’s initial priority was security. By placing Israeli civilians in certain areas to solidify Israel’s control, Israel sought to ensure that the territory’s political future would be consistent with the country’s perceived security needs. A civilian settler population could also act as the first line of defense against an invasion. Under this approach, Israel designated certain strategic regions of the West Bank for Jewish settlement while initially forbidding the establishment of civilian communities in more heavily populated areas.

Over time, messianic Religious Zionist ideology developed as a significant driver of the settlement movement, based on the notion of a religious imperative for Jews to settle the entire Land of Israel. Settlements established as part of this religious movement were often placed in regions with a large Palestinian population in order to secure Jewish dominance over the territory, prevent a Palestinian state, and secure the entire West Bank for Israel.

The settlement of Eli in Binyamin

Driven by these two distinct rationales, the settlement movement and the Israeli government sought to achieve the following political goals since post-1967 Jewish settlement in the West Bank began:

To delineate a future border between Israel and a Palestinian entity that reflects Israel’s priorities

To disrupt the contiguity of Palestinian communities in the West Bank, especially along the central mountain range running north-south

To establish a significant Jewish population in parts of the West Bank so that if annexed, it would not impact the demographic character of the State of Israel

1/3 of Jews in the West Bank are motivated by religious ideology.

The security barrier dividing the Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev in East Jerusalem from Anata in the West Bank

In terms of settlers’ personal reasons for living in the West Bank, one-third of Jews in the West Bank are motivated by religious ideology, while the rest were drawn to the region by the potential to improve their quality of life. Of the 127 recognized settlements, 64 were established for religious reasons, while 63 (home to 67% of Jews in the West Bank) were built with the motivation to provide a high quality of life.

History of West Bank Settlements

The resettling of Kfar Etzion in 1968 by Boris Carmi /Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel / The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Prior to Israel’s founding and the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank, the territory contained several Jewish communities, as well as millennia of Jewish history and many of Judaism’s holiest sites, such as the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Jordan expelled 17,000 Jews from the West Bank during the 1948 war, and when Israel conquered the territory in 1967, it had no Jewish population. The first West Bank settlement was Kfar Etzion, a Jewish community that existed prior to 1948 that Israel reestablished in 1967.

The first decade of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank saw the establishment of 32 settlements, primarily in the Jordan Valley and around Jerusalem. Under this era’s Labor-led governments, security was the primary rationale for encouraging the establishment of civilian Jewish communities in these areas. The aim was to establish the Jordan River as Israel’s eastern security border, encircle the large Palestinian population in the mountain range running north-south through the West Bank’s center, and widen the narrow approach to Jerusalem. This strategy was in line with the Allon Plan, a proposal developed in the wake of the Six-Day War by then-Labor Minister Yigal Allon to divide the West Bank. The Allon plan imagined Israeli annexation of the eastern flank of the territory and the area surrounding Jerusalem, while the rest of the West Bank, which contained most of the Palestinian population, would be returned to Jordan. Although the Israeli government never formally adopted the plan, it served as an influential vision while Labor was in power, with most settlements during this period established in areas designated for Israeli annexation by the plan.

During the Likud governments of 1977-1984, Israel charted a different course regarding West Bank settlement. Under the Sharon plan, imagined by influential Likud minister Ariel Sharon and adopted by the government in 1977, Israel expanded the areas open for Jewish settlement to include a strip adjacent to the Green Line (western Samaria and Judea) in order to encircle the West Bank’s Palestinian population, separate it from Israeli Arab communities in the Triangle region, and secure the mountain range overlooking Israel’s populous coastal plane. Building on the Allon Plan, the Sharon Plan continued to emphasize a security rationale for West Bank settlement and called for avoiding settling Jews in the more densely populated mountain ridge in the West Bank’s center (labeled “Eastern Judea and Samaria” on Map 2).

Shortly after, Matityahu Drobles, the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division head, presented the government with an initiative known as the Drobles Plan. This plan took West Bank settlement a step further by imagining blocs of settlements throughout the West Bank, with the explicit goal of disrupting the Palestinians’ demographic contiguity and entrenching Israel’s presence throughout the territory. The WZO’s Settlement Division was one of the leading drivers of settlement construction during this era.

The settlement of Ofra, established by the Gush Emunim movement in 1975 and recognized by the Likud government in 1977; by Yaakov, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

To that end, this period under the Likud governments of 1977-1984 saw a significant increase in West Bank settlement, the largest share of which were built along the West Bank’s central ridge and its slopes, rather than the Jordan Valley. The goal of creating these Jewish communities in heavily populated Palestinian areas was to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Whereas the Labor-era Jordan Valley settlements were largely agricultural communities inhabited by secular Labor Zionists, most residents of settlements built in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were adherents of Religious Zionism, driven by a messianic ideology to settle the Land of Israel. Representing this ideological movement, Gush Emunim (“the bloc of the faithful”) rose to prominence as the umbrella organization for West Bank settlers.

Background image: The Jordan Valley settlement of Masua, established in 1969; by Yaakov, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Israel’s Labor-Likud national unity governments from 1984 to 1990 struck a balance between the two sides with regard to West Bank settlement. While the pace of establishing new settlements slowed, new settlements appeared in all four of the Sharon plan’s zones. Following the Likud government of 1990-1992, which oversaw the creation of just two settlements (both in Samaria), Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government issued a decision to halt the establishment of new settlements. Soon after, Israel entered into the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, which created the Palestinian Authority as an autonomous governing body in the West Bank and Gaza and divided the territories into Areas A (full Palestinian control), B (Palestinian administration with Israeli responsible for security), and C (full Israeli control).

From 1992 through 2020, Israel established a mere seven settlements. However, this period also saw the emergence of over 100 illegal West Bank outposts, constructed without the approval of the Israeli government and illegal under Israeli law. Several have undergone retroactive legalization by the government, often by being recognized as a neighborhood of an existing settlement.

Why are West Bank settlements a problem?

Settlements negatively impact prospects for securing a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Broadening Israel’s footprint. Settlements seek to secure Israel’s control over the West Bank by establishing spatial dominance over the territory.

Disrupting Palestinian contiguity. The settlement enterprise aims to break the contiguity of Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, making it harder to create a viable Palestinian state.

Undermining Palestinian trust. When the peace process was active, Israeli government approval of settlement construction (as well as the establishment of illegal outposts in violation of Israeli law) in disputed territories whose status was set to be determined through negotiations eroded Palestinians’ trust in Israel as an honest negotiating partner and cast doubt on Israel’s willingness to withdraw.

Shaping public perception. Signifying an entrenchment of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the continued growth of West Bank settlements and their normalization in Israeli society stoke doubt among Israelis and Palestinians that a two-state outcome is possible.

Burdening Israel’s security. Settlements in the West Bank require protection from the IDF, as do the roads connecting them and linking them to Israel. This requires a massive deployment of troops to protect civilians in a territory whose majority population is hostile to them. Over one-half of active IDF troops are stationed in the West Bank, 80% of whom are defending settlements and ensuring their security—not fighting terrorism and helping to keep Israel itself secure.3

Exacerbating violence. Settlers are too often the targets of and perpetrators of violence against Palestinians, particularly those living in ideological settlements deep in the West Bank.

Israeli soldiers block a road during a protest in the West Bank town of al-Masara, south of Bethlehem

3Avishai Ben-Sasson Gordis, “Israel’s National Security and West Bank Settlements,” Molad—The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy (2017), 5.

However, the existence of settlements does not negate the possibility of two states.

We haven’t yet passed the point of no return.

The size of the settler population does not come close to threatening the West Bank’s solid Palestinian majority.

  • 85.2% of West Bank residents are Palestinians.
  • Jews are the majority population (51.9%) within the environs of Jerusalem. In all other parts of the West Bank, Palestinians are the overwhelming majority. 96.7% of the population along the West Bank’s central mountain range that connects the major Palestinian cities is Palestinian.
  • The growth rate of the settler population has fallen to 2.24% from a high of 16% in 1991. Most of this growth is the result of natural growth, rather than migration, and almost half of it is from the Haredi cities of Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit—both of which are consensus settlements that would be annexed to Israel under any two-state formulation. Settlements deep in the West Bank in areas slated for evacuation do not pose a demographic threat. Moreover, the West Bank Jewish population’s growth is expected to fall given current trends.

The settler population is not distributed effectively to secure Israeli dominance over the territory, especially compared to the Palestinian population.

  • The Palestinian population density in the West Bank is six times higher than that of the Jewish population—472 people per square kilometer, compared to 78. The Jewish population density in the West Bank is lower than the overall population density of the Negev Desert.
  • The layout of the West Bank’s Jewish population is also ineffective for the purposes of controlling the territory. Settlements are largely concentrated linearly, such as along the Green Line, along Route 60 through the central mountain ridge, and along Route 90 in the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea region.
    ‣The Palestinian population, by contrast, is more evenly distributed throughout the entire territory, with the exception of the sparsely populated Jordan Valley (where Palestinians, nevertheless, still outnumber Jews). 

Contrary to the widespread perception that the settlement movement succeeded in establishing facts on the ground that ensure Israel’s dominance over the territory, in fact, the opposite is true.

A street in the Palestinian city of Nablus

Settlements are incredibly dependent on Israel-proper. They are not self-sufficient and their residents are reliant on aid and services from within the Green Line.

  • Settlements are not a cohesive community, even within each of the six regional councils in the West Bank. 
    ‣ Long distances between settlements and their respective regional council administrative centers, as well as between the settlements themselves, limit interaction and hinder the establishment of Jewish cultural and economic centers within the West Bank. 
  • The need to circumvent Palestinian areas when traveling exacerbates this challenge.
  • The West Bank settlement system lacks a normal urban hierarchy, i.e. large urban centers surrounded by medium-sized and small communities.
    ‣ The two largest settlements, Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit, are Haredi communities that are largely irrelevant to the lives of non-Haredi settlers. 
    ‣ The settlement system largely consists of small settlements that function as disconnected islands reliant on cities in Israel.
  • Israeli West Bank residents frequently need to travel to major cities within Israel for services that aren’t available in the settlements.
  • Employment opportunities within the settlements are incredibly limited. On average, 60% of the employed population in a settlement is employed in Israel.4
  • The Israeli government provides significant financial aid to the local authorities and residents of the settlements. 
    ‣ In 2014, the average per capita aid from the Israeli government to local authorities in the Judea and Samaria region was NIS 3,762, compared to NIS 2,282 within Israel. Local authorities east of the security barrier received NIS 5,950 per capita on average.
    ‣ In 2017, settlers received on average NIS 1,922 in grants and tax benefits, NIS 1,416 more than the national average.5
  • The number of settlers employed in local agriculture and industry in the West Bank is very low.
  • The precarity of the settlement enterprise is obscured by the government largesse that keeps it afloat. Should Jerusalem choose to end this support, local governments and residents would find themselves in a dire financial position. 

4 Shaul Arieli, Deceptive Appearances: Do the Jewish Settlements in the West Bank Negate the Feasibility of the Two-State Solution?, Dfus SefiDagan Ltd. (2020), 159.

5Avner Inbar, Omer Einav, and Assaf Sharon, Nonviolent Civil Evacuation: Rethinking an End to Israel’s Settlements in the West Bank, Moald—The Center for the Renewal of Democracy (2022), 58j.

The large settlement of Ariel, located on the central mountain ridge in the northern West Bank; by Beivushtang, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Background image: The large settlement of Ariel, located on the central mountain ridge in the northern West Bank; by Beivushtang, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Over 500,000 Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem can expect to remain in their homes, which will be within Israeli’s de jure borders, under a two-state outcome.

  • 77% of settlers reside west of the security barrier, as opposed to deep in the West Bank.
  • Various two-state proposals include land swaps that would result in the majority of settlers being annexed to Israel without impeding Palestinian contiguity. Dr. Shaul Arieli’s proposal for a stable border is based on a 3.9% land swap that would leave 77.7% of Israelis east of the Green Line (including in East Jerusalem)—521,000 people—under Israeli sovereignty. 
  • This leaves approximately 150,000 settlers who live outside of the zone of probable agreement and therefore would need to be evacuated and resettled within Israel’s borders. 
    • Opinion surveys focused on this group (which, far from being monolithic, includes settlers motivated by ideology as well as those focused on quality-of-life concerns) show that a large majority would respect a government decision resulting in their evacuation, even if it is not their preferred outcome.
    • A majority of those who would work to thwart such an evacuation would do so non-violently and legally. 

While absorbing this population within Israel’s sovereign borders would not come without challenges, it does not come close to posing an insurmountable barrier to a two-state outcome. As a point of comparison, Israel absorbed nearly one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

6 Shaul Arieli, Deceptive Appearances: Do the Jewish Settlements in the West Bank Negate the Feasibility of the Two-State Solution?, Dfus SefiDagan Ltd. (2020), 203.

7 Gilad Hirschberger and Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler, “Profile of the Needs and Desires of Settlers in Judea and Samaria” in Deceptive Appearances: Do the Jewish Settlements in the West Bank Negate the Feasibility of the Two-State Solution?, Shaul Arieli (Dfus SefiDagan Ltd., 2020), 244.

Explore the full study: Deceptive Appearances by Shaul Arieli