July 14th, 2024

Israel turbocharges West Bank settlement expansion with largest land grab in decades

By Julia Frankel, The Associated Press on July 3, 2024.

Mourners carry the bodies of four Palestinians, killed by an Israeli airstrike late Tuesday, during their funeral in the West Bank refugee camp of Nur Shams, near Tulkarem, Wednesday, July 3, 2024. Palestinian health officials say four Palestinians were killed by an Israeli airstrike in a refugee camp in the northern West Bank late Tuesday. Israel's military said an aircraft struck a group of militants who were planting explosives in Nur Shams refugee camp near Tulkarem. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel has approved the largest seizure of land in the occupied West Bank in over three decades, a settlement tracking group said Wednesday, a move that is likely to worsen already soaring tensions linked to the war in Gaza.

Israel’s aggressive expansion in the West Bank reflects the settler community’s strong influence in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the most religious and nationalist in the country’s history. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a settler himself, has turbocharged the policy of expansion, seizing new authorities over settlement development and saying he aims to solidify Israel’s hold on the territory and prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.

Authorities recently approved the appropriation of 12.7 square kilometers (nearly 5 square miles) of land in the Jordan Valley, according to a copy of the order obtained by The Associated Press. Data from Peace Now, the tracking group, indicate it was the largest single appropriation approved since the 1993 Oslo accords at the start of the peace process.

Settlement monitors said the land grab connects Israeli settlements along a key corridor bordering Jordan, a move they said undermines the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state.

It is in an area of the West Bank where, e ven before the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, settler violence was displacing communities of Palestinians. That violence has only surged since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack ignited the war in Gaza. Settlers have carried out more than 1,000 attacks on Palestinians since October in the West Bank, causing deaths and damaging property, according to the U.N.

The land seizure, which was approved late last month but only publicized on Wednesday, comes after the seizure of 8 square kilometers (roughly 3 square miles) of land in the West Bank in March and 2.6 square kilometers (1 square mile) in February.

That makes 2024 by far the peak year for Israeli land seizure in the West Bank, Peace Now said.

By declaring them state lands, the government opens them up to being leased to Israelis and prohibits private Palestinian ownership. This year’s land seizures are contiguous, linking two already existing settlements to create a solid block near the border with Jordan. The lands were declared to be closed Israeli military zones before they were declared state land.

The Palestinians view the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank as the main barrier to any lasting peace agreement, preventing any possibility of a cohesive state. Most of the international community considers settlements illegal or illegitimate.

Israel captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, territories the Palestinians want for a future state. Israel’s current government considers the West Bank to be the historical and religious heartland of the Jewish people and opposes Palestinian statehood.

Israel has built well over 100 settlements across the West Bank, some of which resemble fully developed suburbs or small towns. They are home to over 500,000 Jewish settlers who have Israeli citizenship.

The 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank live under seemingly open-ended Israeli military rule. The Palestinian Authority administers enclaves scattered across the territory, but is barred from operating in 60% of the West Bank, which includes the settlements as well as areas with a population of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Yoni Mizrachi, the head of settlement tracking at Peace Now, described the land grab announced Wednesday as part of a strategy to establish a buffer zone between Jordan and Palestinian lands and choke off the practical possibility of a Palestinian state. The aim, he believes, is to push Palestinians into isolated islands surrounded by Israeli land.

“They definitely see this area as a strategic area, as the first and one of the easiest ways to begin annexation,” he said.

Prominent human rights organizations have pointed to Israel’s rule over the West Bank in accusing it of the international crime of apartheid, allegations Israel rejects as an attack on its legitimacy.

Smotrich was granted expanded powers over Israel’s administration of the occupied territory under Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Smotrich laid out his plans for the West Bank at a conference for his ultranationalist Religious Zionism Party last month, a recording of which was obtained by Peace Now. He said he intended to appropriate up to 15 square kilometers (nearly 6 square miles) of land in the West Bank this year.

“We came to settle the land, to build it, and to prevent its division and the establishment of a Palestinian state, God forbid,” he said during the conference. He vowed to “change the map dramatically” by claiming more West Bank land than ever before as state land.

He also promised to expand the establishment of farming outposts, which hard-line settlers have used to extend their control of rural areas, and to crack down on Palestinian construction.

The proliferation of outposts has driven up settler violence in the West Bank since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, rights groups say, leading several Palestinian villages to pick up and leave their land.

Palestinians say the violence is geared toward putting wide swaths of land under Israeli control and pushing the prospect of a Palestinian state further from reach.

The U.S., E.U., UK and Canada have imposed high-level sanctions against violent settlers and settler organizations, but some of those targeted have told The AP that the measures have had little effect.

The declaration published Wednesday was signed under the authority of Hillel Roth, a deputy Smotrich appointed earlier this year to boost settlement expansion and state land declarations in the West Bank, Peace Now said.

The declaration came a day after Peace Now said Israeli authorities were scheduled to approve or advance construction of over 6,000 new settlement homes in the occupied West Bank in the coming days.

COGAT, the Israeli military body in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, was not immediately available for comment.

Hamas cited the expansion of West Bank settlements as one of its justifications for the Oct. 7 attack into southern Israel, in which Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 250 hostage. Israel has launched a massive offensive in response that has killed over 37,900 Palestinians, according to local health officials, who do not say how many were fighters.

The war has caused massive devastation across Gaza and displaced most of its 2.3 million people, often multiple times. Israeli restrictions, the ongoing fighting and the breakdown of law and order have curtailed humanitarian aid efforts, causing widespread hunger and sparking fears of famine.

___ Follow AP’s war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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