Israel expands settlements on the West Bank

Monjed Jadou, Wednesday 7 Feb 2024

Israel is exploiting the Gaza war to intensify its settlement building on the West Bank in contravention of international law, writes Monjed Jadou in Ramallah.

Israel expands settlements on the West Bank

 

Many Palestinians say that Israel is waging a campaign of annihilation against the people of Gaza, with its eyes also set on the West Bank where it is expanding its settlements.

The extreme right-wing government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers settlement expansion to be a key tool for garnering voter support. As a result, the Occupied Palestinian Territories are witnessing a surge in settlement activities on multiple fronts.

Despite US President Joe Biden’s announcement of punitive measures against four settlers in the West Bank for threatening Palestinian security, according to the US designation, Palestinians believe that this step not a deterrent to the settlement activities.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Yoel Smotrich announced the convening of the Israeli government’s Planning and Construction Committee to discuss the construction of 7,000 settlement units just one day after the US administration’s announcement.

Israeli settlers also carried out more attacks against Palestinians, the latest of which occurred in the Auja area of Jericho.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the decision of the US administration to impose sanctions on the settlers. However, it also considers that the international reaction to the violence of the Israeli settlers is weak, despite the positions of several countries in rejecting the settlements and imposing sanctions on settlers.

These responses remain insufficient and do not constitute sufficient sanctions to stop their crimes.

The ministry said that those who want to punish the settlers should put settlement organisations on terrorism lists and impose sanctions on their members, as well as exert real pressure on Israel to dismantle them and arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of crimes committed against Palestinians.

Palestinian journalist Najib Faraj commented on the US decision by saying that the US should act against the settlements supported by the Israeli government and its extreme right-wing ministers who have rejected the US sanctions and defended the settlers. Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir described the settlers as “heroes” in defending Israel and criticised the Biden administration.

In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Faraj said that the settlers will defy the US executive order issued by Biden and continue their attacks against Palestinians with official Israeli protection.

He explained that before the ink dried on the executive order imposing sanctions on settlers who have committed attacks against Palestinian citizens and their property, other settlers attacked residents of Ras Al-Auja north of Jericho on Saturday with the protection of Israeli forces.

At the same time, Israeli forces prevented Palestinians from entering their land in the Um Tir area near Susiya in the Masafer Yatta area south of Hebron and arrested one person in a blatant challenge to Biden’s decision.

Their actions indicated that the Israeli forces are fully behind the settlers and the settler militias, with the Israeli government set on spreading further chaos, terrorising Palestinian citizens, and stealing their land.

The moves are part of the silent annexation of the Occupied West Bank by Israel and its allocation for settlement purposes.

Faraj said that the Palestinian people are indifferent to the US sanctions, seeing them as just another US manoeuvre. The US seeks to appear balanced by condemning Hamas on the one hand and condemning the settlers on the other, with the aim of drawing attention away from the Israeli crimes in Gaza, he said.

However, the actions of the settlers are encouraged and protected by the Israeli army and government.

Would the US impose new sanctions against settlers who defy them and carry out new attacks against Palestinians, Faraj asked. Would Biden take action against the Israeli government, which has announced its intention to build 7,000 new housing units in the settlements?

“Will we see US actions against the settlements that have increased significantly amid the Israeli war on Gaza, where Israel has taken advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the war to implement its extensive settlement plans,” he asked.

He said that the announcement of sanctions against the settlers is not a solution, as those who arm the settlers are the government and the army in Israel. The Palestinians view the sanctions with scepticism because they know they are not serious, he added.

 

SETTLEMENT ESCALATION: Expert on Israeli settlement affairs Soheil Khaleeliah said that Israel is working to enhance the settlements amid the Gaza war.

This goes beyond initiating new settlement projects, and it also involves accelerating the pace by allocating substantial new budgets for building road networks connecting these illegal settlement clusters, termed by Israel as “unauthorised outposts.”

The Israeli government has initiated the legalisation of these outposts by commencing the construction of road networks specifically for them. According to Khaleeliah, it is driving settlement efforts in various West Bank areas, intensifying activities in the Jordan Valley, southern Hebron, Bethlehem, and especially Jerusalem.

These projects persist despite international criticism. The focus is on legalising existing outposts and allocating budgets for new settlement clusters, she said.

The Palestinian Institute of Applied Research, which monitors the settlements, documented 28 new plans for Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem in 2023, totalling 28,503 settlement units over an area of 13,357 dunams of Palestinian land (a dunam is about 1,000 square metres).

This includes areas designated for industrial zones, bypass roads, and public buildings, as well as the designation of other areas as public and national parks and other settlement facilities.

Khaleeliah said that plans made from 7 October last year to 30 January this year include 68 plans in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem, totalling 4,757 settlement units over an area of 9,255 dunams of Palestinian land during the first three months of the war on Gaza.

Israel’s right-wing government is keen on increasing the settlement budget, including it within the overall occupation. Its efforts are directed towards legitimising the outposts and allocating them a portion of the budget, with the current focus being on the approval and funding of new outposts.

Israel’s efforts to build new settlements extend to previously untouched areas, such as UNESCO-recognised Palestinian heritage sites like Sebastia in the northern West Bank and the World Heritage Site of Battir in the south, registered on the UN Organisation’s World Heritage List as “Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir.”

While Israel has faced challenges in executing settlement projects in these areas, it now implements projects that include both settlement clusters and road networks connecting them, leading not only to land confiscation but also the destruction of recognised heritage sites.

One example is the Battir village west of Bethlehem, where Israel commenced new settlement projects and constructed roads to connect them in December 2023. This occurred while the world’s attention was distracted by the war on Gaza.

Omar Al-Qaisi, a 55-year-old resident of Battir, is one of the Palestinian landowners whose olive orchards in the Qaseer and Khummar areas east of the village have been confiscated by Israel for the construction of new settlements.

He said that despite having documents proving land ownership and submitting them to the Israeli authorities for years, Israel nevertheless bulldozed his land. Subsequently, settlers arrived, placing their caravans on the confiscated land. Now, their bulldozers are carving out roads to connect the settlements.

After the settlers’ arrival, Al-Qaisi said there was increased harassment by the Israeli army and settlers. They wanted to see permits for the land, and obtaining these from the Israeli military administration is challenging. In the absence of permits, Israel turns Palestinian land into “absentee property,” facilitating its theft.

Now an activist defending Palestinian land rights, Al-Qaisi said Israel seeks control of the land as part of its Greater Jerusalem project. Battir and other villages are obstacles to its plans, and during the current war Israel is creating facts on the ground by constructing settlement outposts and connecting roads, he said.

It intimidates and assaults Palestinian residents, preventing them from reaching their land. It allows settlers to damage crops, aiming to instill fear through threats. Al-Qaisi said that Israel has started building two settlement outposts in Battir and another one on land east of Beit Jala known as Makhur. Additional outposts are on the agenda once these are established.

“Battir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we expect UNESCO to protect it. Excavation and settlement expansion will affect the entire area,” Al-Qaisi said.

Mustafa Jibril, director of the Battir World Heritage Site at the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, confirmed the violations. Israel has been engaging in illegal excavations and road construction, he said, along with the seizure of land. By taking advantage of the global preoccupation with the war on Gaza, Israel is aiming to create a new reality in the area, he said.

The excavations damage the site’s authenticity, as daily aggressions occur by the Israeli authorities. These attacks aim to protect the settlers and further harm the site, highlighting the ongoing struggle in Battir.

Hassan Brijieh, director of the Wall and Settlement Resistance Committee in the southern West Bank, has noted a significant surge in settlement activities over the past four months. The increase aligns with a rise in settler violence within a systematic settlement strategy led by the Israeli government, he added.

Speaking to the Weekly, Brijieh said that the Israeli government’s settlement strategy has intensified since the onset of the war. It revolves around three main axes: the army, the so-called civil administration, and the settlers. All three are sponsored by the Israeli government, providing them with political cover and funding.

According to Brijieh, the civil administration in the West Bank, acting as the military government, has increased approvals for settlement plans and expanded the number of units. Simultaneously, the Israeli army issues more land confiscation orders in the Palestinian Territories on baseless pretexts, particularly affecting villages in the western areas of Bethlehem, including Battir and Al-Walaja.

The third party in the framework of escalating settlement activities in the West Bank is the settlers themselves, who are armed by the Israeli authorities. Alongside their assaults on Palestinian farmers and villages, they are adopting new policies, such as agricultural and tourist settlements, in addition to land seizure, settlement expansion, and the construction of more housing units.

Brijieh emphasised that the Israeli government funds all these aggressions. Notable decisions include allocating $27 million to protect the so-called settlement outposts by Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir.

Former Israeli minister of finance Yisrael Katz had approved the transfer of $31 million. Furthermore, decisions to distribute weapons led by Ben Gvir himself have resulted in the distribution of hundreds of thousands of weapons to the settlers.

The Israeli policy of forced displacement has succeeded in some Bedouin communities during the war, as the world’s attention has shifted. The increase in settlement activities in the West Bank is part of the same policy, as articulated by Netanyahu’s declaration to enhance settlement activities in the West Bank through policies that echo the Israeli government’s broader agenda.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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