Chapter 3: Israeli Settlements and International Law

The situation in the OPT is primarily governed by two international legal regimes: international humanitarian law (including the rules of the law of occupation) and international human rights law. International criminal law is also relevant as some serious violations may constitute war crimes.


Israel’s policy of settling its civilians in occupied Palestinian territory and displacing the local population contravenes fundamental rules of international humanitarian law.

Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” It also prohibits the “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory”. 

The extensive appropriation of land and the appropriation and destruction of property required to build and expand settlements also breach other rules of international humanitarian law. Under the Hague Regulations of 1907, the public property of the occupied population (such as lands, forests and agricultural estates) is subject to the laws of usufruct. This means that an occupying state is only allowed a very limited use of this property. This limitation is derived from the notion that occupation is temporary, the core idea of the law of occupation. In the words of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the occupying power “has a duty to ensure the protection, security, and welfare of the people living under occupation and to guarantee that they can live as normal a life as possible, in accordance with their own laws, culture, and traditions.”

The Hague Regulations prohibit the confiscation of private property. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the destruction of private or state property, “except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations”.

As the occupier, Israel is therefore forbidden from using state land and natural resources for purposes other than military or security needs or for the benefit of the local population. The unlawful appropriation of property by an occupying power amounts to “pillage”, which is prohibited by both the Hague Regulations and Fourth Geneva Convention and is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and many national laws.

Israel’s building of settlements in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, does not respect any of these rules and exceptions. Transferring the occupying power’s civilians into the occupied territory is prohibited without exception. Furthermore, as explained earlier, the settlements and associated infrastructure are not temporary, do not benefit Palestinians and do not serve the legitimate security needs of the occupying power. Settlements entirely depend on the large-scale appropriation and/or destruction of Palestinian private and state property which are not militarily necessary. They are created with the sole purpose of permanently establishing Jewish Israelis on occupied land.

In addition to being violations of international humanitarian law, key acts required for the establishment of settlements amount to war crimes under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Under this body of law, the “extensive destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly” and the “transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, or the deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory” constitute war crimes. As stated above, “pillage” is also a war crime under the Rome Statute.

Israel’s settlement policy also violates a special category of obligations entitled peremptory norms of international law (jus cogens) from which no derogation is permitted. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) affirmed that the rules of the Geneva Conventions constitute “intransgressible principles of international customary law”. Only a limited number of international norms acquire this status, which is a reflection of the seriousness and importance with which the international community views them. Breaches of these norms give rise to certain obligations on all other states, or “third states”, which are explained below.

The security checkpoint at the entrance to the area surrounding the Masjid el-Khalil Mosque in central Hebron, 14 September 2017. © Amnesty International
The security checkpoint at the entrance to the area surrounding the Masjid el-Khalil Mosque in central Hebron, 14 September 2017. © Amnesty International


States have a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of people under their jurisdiction, including people living in territory that is outside national borders but under the effective control of the state. The ICJ confirmed that Israel is obliged to extend the application of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other treaties to which it is a state party to people in the OPT. Israel is a state party to numerous international human rights treaties and, as the occupying power, it has well defined obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of Palestinians. 

However, as has been well documented for many years by the UN, Amnesty International and other NGOs, Israel’s settlement policy is one of the main driving forces behind the mass human rights violations resulting from the occupation. These include:

Violations of the right to life: Israeli soldiers, police and security guards have unlawfully killed and injured many Palestinian civilians in the OPT, including during protests against the confiscation of land and the construction of settlements. UN agencies and fact-finding missions have also expressed concern about violence perpetrated by a minority of Israeli settlers aimed at intimidating Palestinian populations.

Violations of the rights to liberty, security of the person and equal treatment before the law: Amnesty International has documented how Palestinians in the OPT are routinely subjected to arbitrary detention, including through administrative detention. Whereas settlers are subject to Israeli civil and criminal law, Palestinians are subject to a military court system which falls short of international standards for the fair  conduct of trials and administration of justice.

Violations of the right to access an effective remedy for acts violating fundamental rights: Israel’s failure to adequately investigate and enforce the law for acts of violence against Palestinians, together with the multiple legal, financial and procedural barriers faced by Palestinians in accessing the court system, severely limit Palestinians’ ability to seek legal redress. The Israeli High Court of Justice has failed to rule on the legality of settlements, as it considered the settlements to be a political issue that that it is not competent to hear.

Violations of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly: Amnesty International has documented Israel’s use of military orders to prohibit peaceful protest and criminalize freedom of expression in the West Bank. Israeli forces have used tear gas, rubber bullets and occasionally live rounds to suppress peaceful protests.

Violations of the rights to equality and non-discrimination: Systematic discrimination against Palestinians is inherent in virtually all aspects of Israel’s administration of the OPT. Palestinians are also specifically targeted for a range of actions that constitute human rights violations. The Israeli government allows settlers to exploit land and natural resources that belong to Palestinians. Israel provides preferential treatment to Israeli businesses operating in the OPT while putting up barriers to, or simply blocking, Palestinian ones. Israeli citizens receive entitlements and Palestinians face restrictions on the grounds of nationality, ethnicity and religion, in contravention of international standards.

The Israeli authorities have created a discriminatory urban planning and zoning system. Within Area C, where most settlement construction is based, Israel has allocated 70% of the land to settlements and only 1% to Palestinians. In East Jerusalem, Israel has expropriated 35% of the city for the construction of settlements, while restricting Palestinians to construct on only 13% of the land. These figures clearly illustrate Israel’s use of regulatory measures to discriminate against Palestinian residents in Area C.

The UN has also pointed to discrimination against Palestinians in the way in which the criminal law is enforced. While prosecution rates for settler attacks against Palestinians are low, suggesting a lack of enforcement, most cases of violence against Israeli settlers are investigated and proceed to court.

Violations of the right to adequate housing: Since 1967, Israel has constructed tens of thousands of homes on Palestinian land to accommodate settlers while, at the same time, demolishing an estimated 50,000 Palestinian homes and other structures, such as farm buildings and water tanks. Israel also carries out demolitions as a form of collective punishment against the families of individuals accused of attacks on Israelis. In East Jerusalem, about 800 houses have been demolished since 2004 for lack of permits. Israel also confiscates houses inhabited by Palestinians in the city to allocate them to settlers. By forcibly evicting and/or demolishing their homes without providing adequate alternative accommodation, Israel has failed in its duty to respect the right to adequate housing of thousands of Palestinians.

Violations of the right to freedom of movement: Many restrictions on freedom of movement for Palestinian residents are directly linked to the settlements, including restrictions aimed at protecting the settlements and maintaining “buffer zones”. Restrictions include checkpoints, settler-only roads and physical impediments created by walls and gates. 

Violations of the rights of the child: Every year, 500-700 Palestinian children from the occupied West Bank are prosecuted in Israeli juvenile military courts under Israeli military orders. They are often arrested in night raids and systematically ill-treated. Some of these children serve their sentences within Israel, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The UN has also documented that many children have been killed or injured in settler attacks.

Violations of the right to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health: Restrictions on movement limit Palestinians’ access to health care. Specialists working with Palestinian populations have also documented a range of serious mental health conditions that stem from exposure to violence and abuse in the OPT.

Violations of the right to water: Most Palestinian communities in Area C are not connected to the water network and are prevented from repairing or constructing wells or water cisterns that hold rainwater. Water consumption in some Area C communities is reported by the UN to be 20% of the minimum recommended standard. Israel’s failure to ensure Palestinian residents have a sufficient supply of clean, safe water for drinking and other domestic uses constitutes a violation of its obligations to respect and fulfil the right to water. 

Violations of the right to education: Palestinian students face numerous obstacles in accessing education, including forced displacement, demolitions, restrictions on movement and a shortage of school places. An independent fact-finding mission in 2012 noted an “upward trend” of cases of settler attacks on Palestinian schools and harassment of Palestinian children on their way to and from school. Such problems can result in children not attending school and in a deterioration in the quality of learning. 

Violations of the right to earn a decent living through work: The expansion of settlements has reduced the amount of land available to Palestinians for herding and agriculture, increasing the dependency of rural communities on humanitarian assistance. Settler violence and the destruction of Palestinian-owned crops and olive trees have damaged the livelihoods of farmers. The UN has reported that in Hebron city centre, the Israeli military has forced 512 Palestinian businesses to close, while more than 1,000 others have shut down due to restricted access for customers and suppliers.


Most states and international bodies have long recognized that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. The European Union (EU) has clearly stated that: “settlement building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, is illegal under international law, constitutes an obstacle to peace and threatens to make a two-state solution impossible.”

The settlements have been condemned as illegal in many UN Security Council and other UN resolutions. As early as 1980, UN Security Council Resolution 465 called on Israel “to dismantle the existing settlements and, in particular, to cease, on an urgent basis, the establishment, construction and planning of settlements in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem.” The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Conference of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention have reaffirmed that settlements violate international humanitarian law. The illegality of the settlements was recently reaffirmed by UN Security Council Resolution 2334, passed inDecember 2016, which reiterates the Security Council’s call on Israel to cease all settlement activities in the OPT. The serious human rights violations that stem from Israeli settlements have also been repeatedly raised and condemned by international bodies and experts.

View of an Israeli checkpoint, seen from the road between Ramallah and Hebron, 14 September, 2017.