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Israel advances settlement plans despite international outcry

Jan. 27, 2016 6:01 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 28, 2016 6:36 P.M.)
A bulldozer is seen next to a new housing construction site in the Israeli settlement of Har Homa in East Jerusalem on March 19, 2014. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli, File)
By: Killian Redden

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- In defiance of mounting international criticism, Israel has started to formally approve a burst of new settler housing construction across the occupied Palestinian territory.

Israeli media reported Tuesday that Israel’s Civil Administration had approved a further 153 settler units in settlements across the West Bank last week.

The approval reportedly came through for 65 homes in the settlements of Etz Efraim and Rachelim in Nablus, 28 apartments in Carmel in the South Hebron Hills, and another 60 in Alon Shvut in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Bethlehem.

A spokesperson for Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) declined to comment, but Israeli daily Haaretz said the plans effectively put an end to an “informal construction freeze” that had lasted about 18 months.

Hagit Ofran, spokesperson for Israeli advocacy group and settlement watchdog Peace Now, told Ma’an that while approval for new homes in Israel’s settlements may have slowed over the last year and a half, construction had continued more or less unabated.

“They try to say there is a freeze while on the ground construction is continuing,” she said. “What we see is the policy of Netanyahu’s government.”

Peace Now is still compiling data for last year, but estimates so far suggest that 2015 saw at least as much settlement construction as 2013, even if less than in 2014 -- “a unique year when they almost doubled construction,” Ofran said.

While the Israeli government has not approved as many new homes in the settlements over the past year and a half, work has gone ahead on buildings whose construction was approved earlier.

She said that even if there were to be a complete halt to new approvals, these earlier ones -- in some cases dating back 20 years -- could allow for the construction of as many as 10,000 new homes in settlements across the occupied Palestinian territory.

This was quite aside from the fact that settlers could also build homes without official authorization only to have them approved “retroactively,” she said.

Mounting criticism

There are now some 550,000 Israelis living in Jewish-only settlements across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in contravention of international law.

According to Israeli rights group B’Tselem, this population lives in 125 settlements recognized by the Israeli state and about 100 outposts that do not have official authorization but enjoy “support and assistance from government ministries.”

B’Tselem believes “the existence of settlements leads to violations of many of the human rights of Palestinians, including the rights to property, equality, an adequate standard of living and freedom of movement.”

The recent approval of settler homes comes against the backdrop of a rising tide of international condemnation of Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territory, particularly state support for settlements.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council on Tuesday that he was “deeply troubled” by the reports on the latest series of approvals.

“Continued settlement activities are an affront to the Palestinian people and to the international community,” he said. “They rightly raise fundamental questions about Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution.”

The EU Commission in Jerusalem and Ramallah said Wednesday that they were still investigating the reports, but the EU Council last week declared: “Settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace, and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible.”

In recent weeks, the US has also used unusually strong language to condemn Israel’s settlement policies, with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro saying last week that the US was “concerned and perplexed” by Israel’s support for the settlements.

In December, US Secretary of State John Kerry also said support for settlers was one of several policies “imperiling” the viability of a two-state solution, adding that it raised “honest questions about Israel's long-term intentions.”

The Israeli West Bank settlement of Efrat on September 1, 2014. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli, File)

‘Dangerous for Israel’

Ofran said that while settlement construction has not slowed over the past 18 months, the Israeli state had until recently shied away from giving vocal support to the approval of new building plans.

She attributed this largely to the stalled peace process. “When you don’t have any peace talks, attention on (settlement) construction is much higher,” she said.

She recalled earlier US-backed peace talks, when she said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu matched apparent concessions to the Palestinians -- such as high-profile prison releases -- with the announcement of hundreds of new settler homes.

“The focus of the world was on the peace talks,” Ofran said -- the issue of settlements went largely ignored.

However, she said it was not initially clear what had changed in recent weeks that had allowed for the approval of dozens of new settler homes.

She suggested mounting international pressure on Israel may have caused Israel’s planning authorities to feel they must act now before it becomes more difficult. She said that it may be that the Israeli authorities were simply taking advantage of the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, when US repercussions would be unlikely.

However, she also acknowledged the possibility Israel may simply be reacting to recent weeks of harsh international criticism by an act of retaliation.

She said that continued support for Israel’s settlements was distancing the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “This policy is dangerous for Israel,” she said. “They’re destroying Israel.”

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