Why Israel Is Pushing to Expand West Bank Settlements

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Efforts by Israel to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank have intensified this year, reflecting the agenda of the country’s right-wing government and prompting international condemnation of a practice that most countries say violates international law.

Critics say that the expansion of the settlements undermines the prospects of any comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution, which refers to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Many supporters of the settler movement oppose the idea of Palestinian statehood and view the West Bank, which they call by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria, as the birthright of the Jewish people or as a necessary buffer for the security of Israel.

Palestinians say that the settlements eat up the land they consider theirs for a future state, and often block their access to land they used to farm. They also create a two-tiered legal system in the territory — one set of rules for Israelis and another for Palestinians living under military rule.

In the six months since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel’s history — came to power, the country’s planning authorities have advanced or approved permits for 13,000 new housing units in West Bank settlements, according to Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement group.

That is the highest number on record since 2012, when the group began systematically monitoring Jewish construction in the occupied territory.

This week, the planning authorities advanced about 5,700 housing units in the pipeline for eventual construction. More than 800 are in the final stages of a multistage approval process that often takes years.

Recently, as violence has surged in the West Bank, the government has introduced plans for new settlement homes and cut red tape to accelerate the planning process, as well as acting more aggressively against Palestinian militias.

After an attack outside the West Bank settlement of Eli on June 20, in which two Palestinian gunmen killed four Israelis, Mr. Netanyahu announced plans to build an additional 1,000 settler homes there. His government also pressed ahead this week with plans for 4,700 more homes throughout the West Bank — part of a promised total of 10,000 settler housing units that it had already pledged to build earlier this year.

Attacks by Palestinians against Israelis living in the settlements and elsewhere have surged this year, as has violence by settlers against Palestinians.

This month, the government eased the process for approving new Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and transferred oversight from the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, to the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich. Mr. Smotrich is a far-right former settlement activist who advocates Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

And in March, Israel’s Parliament repealed legislation that barred settlers from four Jewish communities in the occupied West Bank that were evacuated in 2005, allowing visits there, though the government would still need to approve any reconstruction in the areas.

The United States has sharply condemned the plans for new housing as well as the changes meant to expedite planning for future construction in the settlements.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with East Jerusalem, from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and soon permitted Israelis to settle there.

The United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice have all said that Israeli settlements on the West Bank violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. Ratified by 192 nations in the aftermath of World War II, the convention says that an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

The statute that established the International Criminal Court in 1998 classifies such transfers as war crimes.

Israel argues that a Jewish presence has existed on the West Bank for thousands of years and that Jordan’s rule over the territory, from 1948 to 1967, was never recognized by most of the world. Israel considers the territory disputed and says its fate should be determined in negotiations.

Under the Oslo accords, signed by Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s, both sides agreed that the status of Israeli settlements would be resolved by negotiation. However, the last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks ended abruptly, in failure, in 2014.

More than 130 settlements have been built with Israeli government permission since 1967. In addition, more than 100 settlement outposts have been erected since the 1990s without government authorization. The Israeli authorities are working on authorizing many of them retroactively.

Some settlement construction has continued under every Israeli government over the past decades. More than 400,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank alongside more than 2.6 million Palestinians.

Some of the settlements are home to religious Zionists who believe that the area is their biblical birthright. Many secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews also moved there largely for cheaper housing.

In 1998, while the Israeli government was negotiating to concede territory to the Palestinians, Ariel Sharon, then the foreign minister, urged settlers in the West Bank to “run and grab as many hilltops” as they could, “because everything we take now will stay ours.”

That message was echoed this month by Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s ultranationalist minister for national security, who told settlers to “run for the hilltops” and settle them while visiting Evyatar, an illegal hilltop outpost, after the attack near Eli.

But Mr. Netanyahu rejected such calls, saying his government would “not only not back such actions” but would “take strong action against them.”

Mr. Smotrich, the minister overseeing settlement construction, has instructed ministries in Israel to prepare to improve the infrastructure in settlement areas of the West Bank to absorb another 500,000 settlers, according to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper.

Over Israel’s strong objections, the Palestinian leadership moved in late 2014 to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague in order to pursue cases against Israel’s settlement policy and its military operations.

Soon after, the court opened a preliminary inquiry and in 2021 it announced that it was opening a formal investigation into allegations of war crimes by Israel and by Palestinian militant groups in territories occupied by Israel in 1967.

Progress has been slow.

After the Eli attack prompted a spate of reprisals by extremist Jewish settlers, who have rampaged through Palestinian villages setting fire to property, Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior official in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, urged the international court to speed up the proceedings.

“Further procrastination, double standards and stalling in international institutions and subordination to the political will of superpowers are no longer acceptable,” Mr. al-Sheikh wrote on Twitter.

Sumber: www.nytimes.com

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