But these heavily guarded communities have far greater signifcance for the peace process than their neat gardens belie.
The settlement policy adopted by Israel started in 1967 when it occupied Sinai, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including Jerusalem.
Since then, Israel has continued to transfer Jews into strategic parts of the occupied Palestinian territories. These people have become known as settlers.
Today, prime minister Ariel Sharon continues to sanction new building projects, despite his assurance to the US that his government would adhere to the Oslo accords and the road map which demand, not only a halt to further building, but the removal of outposts built after 2001.
Palestinians and human rights groups firmly believe that the settlement policy, promoted by both Labor and Likud parties over the past 30 years, aims to expand the boundaries of Israel.
Furthermore, the orchestrated influx of Jewish citizens into strategic positions between existing Palestinian communnities further destroys the fabric of the indigenous population.
About 393,000 settlers have been transferred; of which, approximately 220,000 live within the illegitimately expanded municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem.
According to international law, all Israeli settlements are illegal.
An Israeli soldier guards the illegal
However, there are 145 official settlements in the West Bank, 19 in the Gaza Strip and 15 in Jerusalem. Settler communities have also created about 105 outposts, or smaller settlements, across the West Bank.
In fact, the distribution map shows that 85% of the Israeli settlements are located in Jerusalem, around West Ram Allah and southern-west Nablus.
In the Gaza Strip, where one million Palestinians live on 360km2 of land, there are 7500 settlers who control 30% of the land.
Following the concepts of the Allon Plan (Yigal Allon was the Israeli defence minister in 1967), the Labor government created 21 settlements along the Jordan Valley and the eastern slopes of Samaria during the period from 1967-77.
Settlements were established in accordance with this plan, which called for the annexation of parts of the occupied territories, including Jerusalem and its close suburbs, the Jordan Valley, the “Judean desert”, southern Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights.
When the Likud party came to power in 1977, there were approximately 50,000 Israeli settlers in annexed Jerusalem, and only 7000 in 45 settlements throughout the occupied territories. Likud supported the expansion of settlements. Its key strategy was to intensify Jewish colonisation over the occupied territories.
Likud adopted the Master Plan for the Development of Settlement in Judea and Samaria between 1979 and 1983. This plan stressed the establishment of numerous settlement outposts and large urban concentrations in three principal areas: A north-south axis starting from the Golan Heights throughout the Jordan Valley and down to the east coast of Sinai.
A developing pattern
During the 1980s, settlement activities doubled; an average of 1000 housing units built per year increased to 2000, in addition to the government’s investment in major infrastructure.
“I don’t think there is any greater obstacle to peace than settlement activity that continues not only unabated but at an advanced pace”
In 1985 the number of settlers (excluding East Jerusalem) reached 42,000; by 1990 the number was 76,000 settlers in approximately 150 settlements. By 1995 the settler population had again nearly doubled reaching approximately 145,000 excluding East Jerusalem.
Israel’s settlement system was accompanied by the massive exploitation of land and natural resources, especially water. Significant financial incentives were offered to encourage Israelis to move to the occupied territories, including rebates and low-interest loans, free infrastructure services and guaranteed employment in the public sector.
Generally, the settlers remain within their “secured” settlements, and continue to maintain relations with Israel and with each other, excluding the Palestinian population around them.
Settlements constitute a separate structure of life to that of the Palestinians, especially with the increase of bypass roads – roads that increasingly only settlers are allowed to use. Settlers consume six times more water per head than Palestinians and receive loans and grants as enticements to relocate.
Today there are approximately 393,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories. According to a UN report, 86,202 settlers live in nine of the 144 settlements, including Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Givat Ze’ev, Efrat, Kiryat Sefer and Betar. There are also 36 settlements in the Golan Heights.
In total, the settlements occupy around seven per cent of the overall occupied Palestinian territory. This percentage dramatically increases when calculations include the land nominated for planned expansion of settlements.
An armed settler rides his bike
The building of settlements and bypass roads continues, as does the confiscation of land. More worryingly settlers are estimated to have killed at least 54 Palestinians since September 2000.
The entire international community, including Russia, members of the European Union, and the members of the Non-Aligned Movement, unanimously maintains that the Israeli settlements are illegal and considered an obstacle to peace.
They violate United Nations General Assembly and Security Council resolutions. Promoting the expansion of settlements also violates the Palestinian-Israeli agreements and endangers the peace process.