Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Israeli settlement policy poised for further aggressiveness

By Felix Black - April 24, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [settlement construction] [settlements] [West Bank] [Israeli government]

Givat HaMatos, an illegal Israeli outpost near Beit Safafa. Photo by Felix Black.


The new Israeli government Netanyahu-Lapid-Bennet-Lieberman coalition is set to pursue the most aggressive West Bank settlement building policies to date.

Having settlers within the government cabinet is not a new phenomenon, but the current batch of ministers marks the highest percentage of settlers, not to mention the most radical. 

It represents a paradigm shift in Israeli politics that could spell the beginning of the end of the settlement issue for international negotiators. The coalition agreement between Likud and The Jewish Home included a bill, which effectively breaks apart the Netanyahu-ultra-Orthodox ideology of old and casts a new period of Israeli politics with a renewed expansionist and nationalistic fervor.

 There is no longer (or perhaps there has never been) a 'left’ or 'right’ in Israeli politics. What existed was but differences in opinion over the direction of the Israeli state, whether it be promoting a 'democratic’ ethos or making the “Jewishness” of the state supreme. In reality, the question it has always asked itself is which Jewishness it wishes to promote. 

The new direction, at least for the next decade, is an identity based on a wider “Jewishness,” attracting more Jews outside and formulating a “Greater Israel” through settlement expansion.

Previous governments have always promoted settlement expansion, but in a relatively underhand manner in contrast to the potential of the new government. Pro-settlement Members of the Knesset from all three parties have control over the defence and housing ministries. These ministries have ultimate power over settlement policy in the West Bank.

The ultimate power of the settlers lies in their power of veto. The Jewish Home party, steered by Naftali Bennet and dominated by West Bank settlers, has 12 seats in the coalition and can thus threaten to use its vetoing power to break up the coalition if it does not get its own way on settlement policies. 

Bennet has already twisted the arm of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to seat Uri Ariel as Minister of Construction and Housing. Ariel has lived in settlements in the West Bank since 1975 and has served as Secretary-General of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization for all Jewish-Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He received critical acclaim from Mattot Arim, an Israel-based settler NGO, for being the “most effective right-wing MK” in 2011.

The Yesha Council has members in several parties of the new coalition. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Israel and the West Bank last March, the Council released a 9-point plan for settlement building in the West Bank entitled “Judea and Samaria – Its Jewish, Its Vital, Its Realistic.” It would be no false prophecy to claim that this document could be the blueprint for the medium-term future of the Israeli state. The Council has the added benefit of having a new Defence Minister in the form of Moshe Ya’alon. Also a settler, he moves the “more liberal” Ehud Barack out of the way and thus brings the security establishment even closer to the settler project.

Aside from Ariel, Ya’alon and the power of the Yesha Council, there are two other MK’s that now have total power over settlement policy. 

Nissan Slomiansky, former Secretary General of Gush Emunim, a radical settler movement created in 1974, will be in charge of budgets and regulations in parliament. He can manipulate government subsidies for certain sectors of Israeli society, alongside having a strong hold on the composition of the state budget. 

Benzi Lieberman, former head of Samaria Regional Council, is the director of the Israel Land Authority. This authority, in place since 1960, manages land expropriated by the Israeli government. He can affectively regulate new settlement land, pass judgements on outposts, and is generally responsible for the expansion of existing settlements.

These “Big Four” hold the reigns to the potentially galloping horse of settlement expansion. 

The Sasson Report, an official Israeli document released in 2005, highlighted the extent to which settlement activity had become a gruesome part of government policy

With the shift in power moving away from the ultra-Orthodox parties, and with the mainstream Yair Lapid as Finance Minister, money will undoubtedly move away from funding for yeshiva’s and internal religious issues towards more central religious-national initiatives.

However, what many political commentators fail to realize is that these individual shifts, although frightening, represent a trickle of power transfers in what is actually a monumental change in the ethos of Israeli politics and society in favor of settlement expansion in the past few years. 

On-the-ground in the West Bank

Prior to 1979, settlement activity was listed within the jurisdiction of the military. Since then the government has taken partial control over the declaration of territory in the West Bank, using various ways and means to confiscate land and make it Israeli, skirting around Israeli law using a variety of methods.

The Sasson Report, an official Israeli document released in 2005, highlighted the extent to which settlement activity had become a gruesome part of government policy. It showed how multiple Israeli state bodies had been discreetly diverting millions of shekels towards the building of settlements and outposts, despite their illegality under Israeli law. Since then, the previously underhand nature of settlement construction had become official government policy. 

Four criterions were created for the “legal” establishment of a settlement in the West Bank. To summarize, the government document states that an “authoritative political echelon” must take the decision to build on “state lands” with a “lawfully designed building scheme” in collaboration with the “Commander of the area.” 

This gradual shift towards the legal and political normalizing of settlements in the West Bank is a mechanism Israel uses across the area it controls. The latest political shift will move it even further towards the creation of common Israeli presence in the West Bank.

Yet the actual authorization of settlement construction passes through a bewildering array of the legal and political spheres in such an Orwellian manner that it is nigh on impossible to tell what is based on government authority and what is juristic. A lens through which this can be observed is the way Israeli outposts in the West Bank are consolidated into fully-fledged settlements. 

International law often watches in disbelief, continually reiterating the narrative that all settlement actividt is in contravention of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention

Derekh Avot is an outpost located just south of Nablus. Under Israeli law, it is illegal. A report commissioned by the Israeli government in 2010 found that 60% of the land the outpost is built on is privately-owned Palestinian land, tracing back through Jordanian, British and Ottoman law. 

Yet the Custodian of Government Property is set to transform the area into “state lands” based on the “uncultivated” nature of the area. Under Israeli law, if an area of land has been cultivated for 10 years or more, the farmer is the legitimate owner of the land. The Israeli Civil Administration, the sole authority over information gathering in the territory, has a legal obligation to plot land using aerial photographs and testimonies of villagers on the ground. It rarely does so. 

The Israeli state has wrangled a deal with the legal authorities to assert that there is uncultivated land, in between the olive trees. It is therefore a legitimate part of state land and permissible for construction. Affectively the land will be white-washed of all three legal jurisdictions and absorbed into Israeli law almost overnight. 

International law often watches in relative disbelief, continually reiterating the narrative that all settlement activity is in contravention of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of the occupying powers’ population into the territory that it occupies. 

For Palestinians, neither Israeli nor international law truly matters in the face of the robbery. 

No amount of research into the laws and legalities, the religious and historic rights to the land, the facts on-the-ground, and the ideology of Zionism can legitimize the continuing settlement activity in the West Bank and the continued robbery of the powerless by the powerful.

The notorious E-1 district is the go-to focal point for discussions on settlement activity and Palestinian livelihood, as the construction of 3,000 housing units in the area would effectively cut the West Bank into two land masses. Yet there are other settlement areas that are just as, if not potentially more destructive than the E-1, especially given the potential under the new government. 

Giv’at HaMatos is currently a caravan and simple structure Israeli outpost located next to Beit Safafa in southeast Jerusalem (see picture). The government has earmarked the site for 2,612 new housing units linking it with the settlements of Gilo and Har Homa which, according to some, would form “a long Jewish continuum severing Bethlehem’s urban continuum from Palestinian Jerusalem.” 

This has led many to claim that the construction of Giv’at HaMatos would do in the South what E-1 does in the East. It is these sites, not just the ones documented in mainstream media outlets that will bear the brunt of settlement activity in the coming years.

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