West Bank settlers pressure Netanyahu ahead of March vote
AFP, , Thursday 28 Jan 2021
While most countries consider all Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal, Israel broadly divides them into two categories: government-recognised settlements and so-called wildcat outposts


Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank are demanding concessions from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of a March general election which could hinge on a battle for right-wing votes.

While most countries consider all Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal, Israel broadly divides them into two categories: government-recognised settlements and so-called wildcat outposts.

In the former, Israel aims to provide similar services -- water, electricity and the like -- as it does to citizens within its internationally agreed borders.

Wildcat settlements, often ramshackle collections of portacabins set up by hardline religious nationalists deep inside the West Bank, generally have no connection to the Israeli grid.

Some outposts have been given retrospective authorisation in the past, particularly by Netanyahu-led governments.

As another Israeli election nears, pro-settler groups are using tactics including a hunger strike outside Netanyahu's Jerusalem office to demand recognition for another 70 wildcat outposts, home to some 25,000 of the 650,000 settlers in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Yossi Dagan, an influential settler leader who staged a week-long protest fast outside the premier's office this month, insisted that distinguishing between types of settlements was "absurd".

"There is no logical reason why 25,000 Israeli citizens do not have the same rights as others, it's not a political question, it's a question of social rights," he said.

Limited 'wiggle room'

Dagan, head of a regional council for Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank, fainted and was briefly hospitalised after speaking to AFP last week.

He had launched his hunger strike as former US president Donald Trump was about to leave office -- timing that experts suspect was far from coincidental.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967.

Both Republican and Democratic US administrations have long opposed Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.

But Trump's staunchly pro-Israel administration broke with this policy, announcing in 2019 that it did not regard such activity as illegal.

Trump's four-year term saw an unprecedented boom in settlement construction and spared Netanyahu from Washington's traditional criticism in response to new West Bank housing projects.

President Joe Biden is set to restore Washington's opposition to settlements, so right-wing settlers are trying use the window before Israel's next election to secure firm commitments from Netanyahu -- who is desperate for their votes.

"The settlers know that (with Biden in office) the government's wiggle room will not be as great as it was during Trump's tenure, so they need promises, not just statements of support" from Israeli politicians, said Denis Charbit, a political scientist at the Open University of Israel.

Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlements for the Israeli anti-occupation group Peace Now, said Biden's presidency and Israel's election results could impact both wildcat settlement recognition and broader questions around the "appropriation of Palestinian land".

Battle for the right

Netanyahu partly owes his record as Israel's longest-serving premier, in power since 2009, to his status as the unchallenged leader of the Israeli right.

But polls suggest the March election, Israel's fourth is less than two years, could swing against him.

Gideon Saar, a leading right-winger with pro-settler credentials, defected from Netanyahu's Likud party last year, and polls suggest his breakaway party could win a solid chunk of seats in the parliament.

Surveys also suggest that the staunchly pro-settler Yemina party of Naftali Bennett, a former defence and economy minister, is on the rise.

Both Saar and Bennett have ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition, which could complicate the premier's bid to forge a 61-seat majority -- something he already failed to do after three recent elections when the Likud was united behind him.

In Givat Hahish, a wildcat outpost near Bethlehem where some 40 families live in a mixture of mobile homes and permanent dwellings, father of four Matan Fingerhut declined to state his political preferences.

But he made clear that he wants political recognition of Givat Hahish.

"I like this place and I want to live here legally," said Fingerhut, who built his own house on a hill without Israeli government permission.

He said he hoped recognition could lead to better services.

"We often find ourselves in the dark, without heating, without hot water," he said.

Uriya Loberbaum, a 38-year-old father of five, recently staged an 18-day hunger strike in support of recognition for his wildcat settlement of Sde Boaz.

He dismisses the international consensus that the West Bank must form part of a future Palestinian state.

"We have to make it clear that it is ours, this region belongs to the Jewish people," he said.

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