At the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, there were approximately 110,000 settlers in the West Bank and around 140,000 in East Jerusalem. In the West Bank, there were 128 settlements, and in East Jerusalem, the settlement activity was concentrated in 12 large neighborhoods, mostly built in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Gilo, Pisgat Ze’ev, Ramot, and others.
Today, 30 years later, there are about 465,000 settlers in the West Bank, residing in around 300 settlements and outposts. In East Jerusalem, there are approximately 230,000 settlers, in addition to about 3,000 who are residing within Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
The Oslo Accords signed 30 years ago this week, were supposed to lead to a peace agreement between Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state by 1999. While the Oslo Accords specified that the issues of settlements, Jerusalem, and borders (among others) would be negotiated, they prohibited the establishment of new settlements and any changes to the existing reality on the ground. In practice, and despite the prohibitions, the settlement enterprise has thrived over the past thirty years, primarily due to five different factors: the expansion of existing settlements, the establishment of hundreds of outposts, the construction of bypass roads, the “import” of ultra-Orthodox populations to settlements, and the creation of settlements within Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
West Bank – Settlements Expansion, Establishment of Outposts, Bypass Roads, and the ״Import״ of Ultra-Orthodox Populations
- At the time of the Oslo Accords, there were 128 settlements in the West Bank with a settler population of around 110,000. During these thirty years, hundreds of plans were advanced that expanded the settlements and, more significantly, increased their populations. Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords, decided to freeze most of the construction in the settlements, but after his assassination and the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office, this policy changed drastically. Netanyahu halted the construction freeze and allowed for the advancement of building plans for existing settlements. These plans were excused by claiming that they did not increase the territorial footprint of the settlements or were adjacent to existing ones. In practice, not only did the settlements expand territorially, but their demographic component nearly quintupled.
Establishment of New Settlements – Outposts:
Since the Oslo Accords specifically prohibited changing the reality on the ground unilaterally, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government found a “trick” to bypass this prohibition. Despite the prohibition, they established at least 200 new settlements, which are known as outposts. Outposts are settlements that are established without official government approval and without approved building plans. Over the years, the Israeli government has taken various measures to discredit and undermine the significance of these outposts and even committed in the Annapolis Accords to evacuate some of them. However, only a minority of outposts were evacuated, and in recent years, there has been a massive effort to reclassify them as new settlements or as neighborhoods within existing settlements. As of today, 27 outposts have been retroactively legalized, with the majority of them remaining as “illegal” outposts (155).
״Import״ of Ultra-Orthodox Populations:
While the ultra-Orthodox community does not have an ideological interest in settling in the West Bank, a significant demographic shift occurred with the massive influx of ultra-Orthodox residents into the settlements. Settlement leaders realized that if they could attract ultra-Orthodox communities to settle, they would significantly increase the settler population. Therefore, they established several ultra-Orthodox settlements. Those established deep in the West Bank, like Immanuel, had limited success, but those located closer to the central district or Jerusalem succeeded. As a result, the two largest cities in the West Bank are now Haredi: Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit, with a combined population of around 150,000 settlers, while at the time of the Oslo Accords, Beitar Illit had only about 5,000 settlers, and Modi’in Illit did not exist yet. The largest settlement in terms of population is Modi’in Illit, with around 82,000 residents. The second-largest is Beitar Illit, with approximately 63,000 residents. These two Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) settlements together have nearly 150,000 settlers.
Roads and Bypass Roads:
The Oslo Accords facilitated the development of bypass roads around Palestinian cities in the West Bank. With the withdrawal of the Israeli military from Palestinian cities, the construction of bypass roads began. Initially, these roads were built to bypass Palestinian cities such as Hebron, Bethlehem, Nablus, and Ramallah. One example of this is the “Tunnels Road,” which opened to traffic in 1996. The road connects settlements around Bethlehem (Gush Etzion and Efrat settlements) to Jerusalem, bypassing Bethlehem and passing underneath the Palestinian village of Beit Jala. Likewise, roads that connect settlements directly to Israel via fast and direct routes, like Highway 5 from Ariel or the “Liberman” Highway from Nokdim, were established. Roads in general, and bypass roads specifically, have played a significant role in the growth of settlements by providing convenient and quick access without passing through Palestinian villages and cities(also avoiding traffic delays). To authorize and build these roads in the West Bank, Israel has expropriated more than 30,000 dunams of land. In 1995, during the early stages of bypass road construction, there was a record of more than 100 kilometers of new roads built in the West Bank, which accounted for over 20% of the country’s total bypass road construction that year.
In recent years, the Israeli government has accelerated the construction of roads and bypass roads. In 2020 alone, the Ministry of Transportation promoted the development or construction of at least 13 bypass roads between Hebron and Ramallah, including the expansion of the Tunnels Road, the widening of Highway 60 from south of Jerusalem, the expansion of Highway 437 (Jerusalem-Hizma bypass), the construction of the Al-Aroub bypass, the construction of the Qalandiya underpass, the expansion of the Apartheid road between Azaria and a-Zaim, the eastern section of the Jerusalem Nature Highway, and more.
In the early 1990s, the nature of settlement activity in East Jerusalem changed. Alongside the construction of new neighborhoods (such as Har Homa in 1997 and Ramat Shlomo in 1998) and the expansion of existing neighborhoods (Ramot, Neve Yaakov, Gilo, and others), settlement activity also gained strength within Palestinian neighborhoods and the Old City by taking over homes inhabited by Palestinians. A significant change occurred during the Second Intifada with the intensification of “tourist settlements.” Settlement organizations, with government support, took responsibility for tourist sites in Silwan and around the Old City.
These tourist settlements attract large numbers of Israeli visitors each year, serving as a platform for public relations and influencing millions of tourists. For example, the tourist site “City of David,” operated by the Elad Settler Organization and located in the heart of Silwan, draws hundreds of thousands of Israeli visitors annually. While the number of settlers residing within Palestinian neighborhoods remained relatively small, their influence on Palestinian daily life and the exacerbation of tensions and violence with frequent settler incursions have been significant. In the early 1990s, there were about 800 settlers living in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Today, approximately 3,000 settlers reside within Palestinian neighborhoods, mainly in Silwan, Ras al-Amud, Sheikh Jarrah, the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and others. The growth in the number of settlers has led to significant changes in the daily lives of Palestinians and has generated friction and frequent violence caused by settler attacks.
The thirty years following the Oslo Accords were characterized by a significant expansion of the settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, growing from approximately 250,000 in 1993 to nearly 700,000 by 2023. This population growth is a result of Israel’s ongoing expansion of settlements, the establishment of new settlements in the form of outposts, and the construction of hundreds of kilometers of bypass roads, making it easier for settlements to connect to Israel. Additionally, a significant reinforcement of the settler population comes from the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), who have no ideological connection to the settlements and had not settled in the West Bank before the Oslo Accords, except for a few neighborhoods in East Jerusalem (Neve Yaakov, Ramat Shlomo, and Ramot).
The conclusions drawn from the data are clear. The settlement enterprise did not suffer from the Oslo Accords but rather thrived. Israel continued to expand, develop, and authorize settlements in the West Bank unabated. Even in years when few new settlements were established (1993–1997), infrastructure work continued. When factoring in agricultural land and pastures seized by settlers, it can be concluded that the settlement enterprise has never been in a better position, while the situation for Palestinians in the West Bank remains difficult and fraught with challenges.
Number of settlers in the West Bank: Approximately 110,000 + 6,400 in the Gaza Strip.
Settlers in East Jerusalem: Estimated at 140,000.
Number of settlements: 128.
Number of settlers in the West Bank: Approximately 465,000.
Settlers in East Jerusalem: Around 230,000.
Number of settlements: 146.
Number of outposts: 155, including approximately 60 agricultural farms.
Methods of outpost authorization:
Neighborhoods within settlements: 19.
Educational institution: 1.
Tourist site: 1.
Agricultural farm: 2.
Total number of settlements and outposts: Approximately 300.