July 22nd, 2024

Settlement tracking group says Israel has made largest West Bank land seizure in 3 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 could further worsen already soaring tensions linked to the ongoing war in Gaza.

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.

Violence has surged in the West Bank since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack ignited the war in Gaza, with Israel carrying out near-daily military raids that often spark deadly gunbattles with Palestinian militants. Palestinians have also carried out a string of attacks on Israelis.

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.

The parcels are contiguous and located northeast of the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the Western-backed Palestinian Authority is headquartered. By declaring them state lands, the Israeli government has opened them up to being leased to Israelis and prohibited private Palestinian ownership.

The Palestinians view the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank as the main barrier to any lasting peace agreement and most of the international community considers them 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 is opposed to 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 parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank but is barred from operating in 60% of the territory, where the settlements are located.

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.

Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has turbocharged land seizure and settlement construction since being granted expanded powers over Israel’s administration of the occupied territory under the current governing coalition, the most religious and nationalist in Israel’s history.

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 at least 15 square kilometers (nearly 6 square miles) of land in the West Bank this year.

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 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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