Three thousand new Israeli settler houses planned on Palestinian land—one more nail in the coffin for any dream of a two-state solution—Or a dream that may be already dead?
By John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
The Israeli plan to construct over 3,000 new housing units in several settler communities, some of which are deep in occupied territory on the West Bank, is a slap in the face to the Biden administration, Palestinians themselves, anti-occupation Israelis, the EU, UN, and Arab countries. This plan makes it that much more difficult to settle the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine and significantly dims the chances of creating a state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israeli government announces over 3,000 new homes for location in existing settlements
This past week, on October 25, the government of Israel announced that it had approved over 3,000 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank. This announcement came only one day after the Biden administration had let Israel know in no uncertain terms that it condemned the planned construction. The administration had caught wind of the Israel proposal from the anti-settlement group Peace Now, which was not authorized to speak publicly.
The Israeli announcement reported the largest number of new settlement homes since the Trump administration had given carte blanche for settlement growth. This despite the U.S. government’s decade-long position that such settlements were illegitimate, if not illegal. According to an Associated Press report, “Israel embarked on an aggressive settlement spree during the Trump years, advancing plans for more than 12,000 settler homes in 2020 alone, according to Peace Now, the highest number since it started collecting data in 2012.”
The additional populating of the West Bank by settlers has already created friction with the U.S., Europe, and the Palestinians. The announcement also put the country’s political coalition of ultra-nationalists, centrists, and pacifist parties that oppose settlements at risk. Criticism within Israel pointed to how the present government may be repeating former Prime Minister Netanyahu’s settlement policy, thus placing the new government no closer to peace than the former government.
U.S. concern over the new settlement homes rose to the level of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who protested the plan to Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Blinken was particularly concerned about the fact that many of the homes were planned for what is described as “deep inside the West Bank.”
The State Department elaborated further, through spokesman Ned Price, who told reporters, “We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm and damages the prospects for a two-state solution.” Palestinians see the 700,000 settlers on the West Bank as the biggest impediment to peace (other sources indicate smaller numbers of settlers). On the other hand, Israel sees that same occupied territory that is home to more than 2.5 million Palestinians “as the biblical and historical heartland of the Jewish people.”
“Heartland” or not, what is known is that this is land that was taken by military force and that it is still occupied by that same force over a half-century later. It is easier for Israelis to build on the West Bank than some Palestinians, who are required to obtain military permits to build homes on the 60% of land controlled by Israel, and most of these permits are denied.
Prime Minister Neftali Bennet’s first foray into new settlement homes
The initiative to implant new homes in the West Bank is P.M. Bennett’s first such move since his succession of Netanyahu in June. The new homes, some 3130 of them are to be spread across 25 existing settlements, some of them deep into the territory Palestinians had once figured would become the core of a new state.
Despite the disapproval registered by the U.S., the planning of home construction continues on track. According to the New York Times, “Approved despite the objections of the United States, critics say the new building will consolidate Israel’s presence in the West Bank and make it harder to create a Palestinian state.” The Times continued, “The construction would further consolidate the Israeli presence in the West Bank and the barriers to the creation of a geographically contiguous Palestinian state.”
The Biden administration specifically opposes the new construction because it makes it that much more difficult to settle the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine. And it significantly dims the chances of creating a state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza.
Ironically and disappointingly, the decision to develop settler housing undercuts the very coalition established by Bennett and Gantz, a coalition of a highly diverse alliance of political parties that had suppressed their differences to get rid of Netanyahu. As the Times reported, “The coalition is an unwieldy alliance of left-wingers, centrists and Arab Islamists who support the two-state solution; right-wingers like Mr. Bennett, a former settler leader who opposes Palestinian sovereignty.”
At the same time, the coalition believed, per the Times, that by “promising to prolong their fragile alliance” they would do so “by avoiding unilateral decisions in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” That, for sure, did not happen, but whether any of the partners can do anything about it is questionable.
International condemnation of new settlement homes matched by right-wing Israeli zeal in promoting settlement expansion
International organizations and a few Arab countries have made known their concern over settlements expansion, while right-wing Israeli groups tout the expansion as a consolidation of Israel’s control over the West Bank. The United Nations has expressed “grave concern” over Israel’s announcement of the 3,000 new homes planned for the West Bank, according to news source Al-Jazeera. The UN envoy stressed the fact that “all settlements are illegal under international law [and] remain a major obstacle to peace and must stop immediately.”
At the same time, the European Union on Monday demanded Israel cease the planned construction. As noted in Al-Jazeera, the settlements continue to be “a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace between the parties.” The EU added salt to the wound by stating that “it will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders other than those agreed by both sides.”
The neighboring country of Jordan also chimed in on the issue, its foreign ministry stating that settlement construction and general “confiscation” of Palestinian land [is] “illegitimate”.
Countering international and Arab country criticism is the zeal of Israel’s right-wing in supporting even more settlement construction. Al-Jazeera quotes Housing Minister Zeev Elkin, who is a member of the right-wing New Hope party, as saying, “strengthening Jewish presence [in the West Bank] was essential to the Zionist vision”.
The Peace Now anti-occupation group expressed its disapproval of the new housing policy, noting that “Sunday’s announcement proved that Bennett’s ideologically diverse coalition, which replaced former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pro-settlement government in June, was not a government of change”. Furthermore, “This government clearly continues Netanyahu’s policy of de facto annexation,” Peace Now said, calling on Bennett’s left-wing governing partners, the Labor and Meretz parties, to “wake up and demand the wild building in settlements cease immediately”.
If anyone had any illusions about Neftali Bennett’s stance on settlement policy, they now know for sure that his anti-Palestinians views are even further right than his predecessor’s, Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite his eight-party coalition, including a left-wing and an Islamist party, Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood.
This is no surprise since Bennett was once a settler and, at that, head of a settler lobby group, and, as well, a member of the Israeli Defense Force, from which he purportedly enjoyed his role in defending Israel’s right to the West Bank.
–” Settlement monitor: Israel OKs some 3,000 new settler homes,” Associated Press, 10/27/2021
–“Israel Advances Plan for New Settlement Homes, in First for Bennett Era,” New York Times, 11/27/2121
–“Israel to build 1,300 settlement units in occupied West Bank, Al-Jazeera,” 10/24/2021 (this was an early estimate)
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, Department of State, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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