Settlement & Annexation Report: February 10, 2023


Welcome to FMEP’s Weekly Settlement Report, covering everything you need to know about Israeli settlement activity this week.

To subscribe to this report, please click here.

Shameless Plug: Check out the latest episode of FMEP’s Occupied Thoughts podcast – Settler Violence: More Than Criminal – featuring Ziv Stahl (Yesh Din) and FMEP’s Kristin McCarthy

February 10, 2023

  1. Government Begins Forming Bureaucracy for Annexation
  2. Smotrich Says No Settlement Freeze, Asks Settlers to Hold Off on New Outposts
  3. A New Settlement: Israel Establishes Tel Zion as Independent Settlement
  4. Israeli Government Expected to Advance Atarot Settlement Plan
  5. Court Grants State Two-Month Delay in Khan Al-Ahmar Forced Displacement
  6. Israeli Cabinet Prepares for Vote to Amend 2005 Disengagement Law, Legalize Homesh Outpost & Yeshiva
  7. Bibi Pitches Massive Tunnel Construction in West Bank to French Investors
  8. Smotrich Resigns, Brings Criminal Settler into Knesset
  9. Bonus Reads

Government Begins Forming Bureaucracy for Annexation

As the new Israeli government continues to take shape, the bureaucratic mechanisms of annexation have come into focus.

Key components of this bureaucracy will reportedly include a new “Settlement Administration,” the creation of which is still pending an agreement between Smotrich and Defense Minister Gallant on how duties in the Defense Ministry will be divided (a division which is facing international opposition). In a meeting with settler leaders, Smotrich unveiled a plan for a new “settlement administration” that will attempt to centralize the Defense Ministry’s efforts accomplish several key objectives: to promote settlements, to take control of more land, to handle legal cases related to the settlements, and to advance Smotrich’s long-time goal of dismantling the Civil Administration in order to bring the settlements under the direct governance of the Israeli state (annexation). 

According to Smotrich, this new administration will operate on a two year timeline to achieve its goals, ultimately working itself out of existence once all powers over the settlements are transferred from the Civil Administration to the various Israeli Ministries. According to Haaretz, Yehuda Eliyahu is likely to lead the settlement administration under the management of Smotrich. Smotrich and Eliyahu co-founded the Regavim settler group.

In addition, the Israeli government expanded the portfolio of the Minister of the Negev and Galilee, a post held by Otzma Yehudit member Yitzhak Wasserful. The expanded position will also have a new “young settlement department” (young settlement is a euphemism used by settlers for outposts). This department will be engaged in preparatory work for the legalization of outposts, and will also work on plans to deliver infrastructure to the outposts. Prior to this new department, this ministerial post did not have any authority in the West Bank (i.e. outside of Israel’s sovereign borders).

Haaretz details how these new bodies will interact:

“… if outposts are legalized, the process will likely be divided among three different agencies. The Civil Administration, which is under Smotrich’s control according to the coalition agreement, will be in charge of formal legalization. But responsibility for building or improving infrastructure in outposts will be divided between two other agencies. One is the National Missions Ministry, headed by Orit Strock (Religious Zionism). The other is the so-called young settlement department.” 

Lastly, Emek Shaveh reports on a January 29th government decision which transferred the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Heritage, which is now headed by Jewish Power MK Amihai Eliyahu. The IAA exercises authority over heritage and archaeological sites in Israel, including East Jerusalem, but has increasingly expanded its authorities into Area C of the West Bank, at the expense of the Staff Officer for Archaeology within the Civil Administration which has historically been in charge. The government also tasked Eliyahu with preparing an emergency plan to “safeguard” antiquity sites in the West Bank specifically, where settlers have spent years alleging neglect and destruction of heritage sites by Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority (which, turns out, has created a basis for the government to take control over those sites – go figure). The government allocated NIS 150 million to the effort.

Emek Shaveh reacts:

“After years of monitoring the process of weaponizing ancient sites in the service of the settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, we are not surprised that the ultranationalist Jewish Power party demanded the heritage portfolio. An indication of the minister’s intentions was offered in January, when Eliyahu took over from outgoing minister of Heritage and Jerusalem Affairs, Ze’ev Elkin. At the ceremony he said: ‘Israel needs three pillars in order to stand strong: the security pillar, the economic pillar and a third pillar which is the pillar of significance.’ He added ‘The Ministry of Heritage will strengthen the third pillar. We will fortify our national resilience by encountering our heritage. We will protect the various heritage sites and devise programs to deepen Jewish identity’.”

For an overview of Israel’s weaponization of archaeology in its effort to take control of more land in Jerusalem and the West Bank, please see Emek Shaveh’s report.

Smotrich Says No Settlement Freeze, Asks Settlers to Hold Off on New Outposts

Following reports that Netanyahu had conceded to the U.S. request to freeze settlement construction in order to de-escalate tensions, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich repudiated the idea of any freeze, saying: “There will be no freeze on construction in Judea and Samaria. Period.” 

Smotrich’s statement, however, did not contradict reports that he had asked settler leaders to stop efforts to establish new outposts, asking settlers leaders to coordinate all activity with the government. Smotrich publicly explained his request to pause outpost construction, saying at the weekly meeting of the Religious Zionism party: 

“Our ambition is not to have to resort to illegal measures. We want the government to officially adopt a policy of recognizing all the communities in the settlements and also, of establishing new communities, in line with natural growth. None of us considers himself above the law. We are the government, and this will take more than a day or two, but I’m convinced that we’ll see substantial changes occurring in the near future.”

A New Settlement: Israel Establishes Tel Zion as Independent Settlement

On February 5th, the Israeli Cabinet approved a plan that will, once implemented, establish a new settlement, Tel Zion, by splitting off the Ultra-Orthodox section of the Kochav Yaakov settlement, located east of Jerusalem. The approval of this plan was delayed from consideration last month while U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan  was in Israel.

The creation of the “Tel Zion” settlement is part of Netanyahu’s coalition deal with the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, and is also supported by Defense Minister Gallant.

Israeli Government Expected to Advance Atarot Settlement Plan

Peace Now reports that the Netanyahu government appears likely to re-engage a plan to build the Atarot settlement. 

The plan for the Atarot settlement, which has existed since 2007, calls for a huge new settlement on the site of the defunct Qalandiya Airport, located on a sliver of land between Ramallah and Jerusalem. In its current form, the plan provides for up to 9,000 residential units for ultra-Orthodox Jews (assuming, conservatively, an average family size of 6, this means housing for 54,000 people), as well as synagogues, ritual baths (mikvehs), commercial properties, offices and work spaces, a hotel, and a water reservoir. If built, the Atarot settlement will effectively be an Israeli city surrounded by Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods on three sides and Ramallah to its north. Geopolitically, it will have a similar impact to E-1 in terms of dismembering the West Bank and cutting it off from Jerusalem. For more on the Atarot settlement plan, please see here.

The Atarot settlement plan was last considered in 2021 when Naftali Bennet was Prime Minister, but was delayed from consideration by the planning committee – reportedly at the urging of U.S. Secretary of State Blinken. The Committee delayed advancement of the plan by ordering an environmental study which was  expected to take about one year. Notably, in ordering the study, the Court made it clear that the environmental study is “standard practice” and expressed support for the underlying plan, saying it believes the plan represents a proper use of unutilized land reserves.

Peace Now said in a statement

“This is a highly dangerous plan that could land a fatal blow to the prospect of peace and two states. The Atarot plan puts a wedge in the heart of the existing Palestinian urban continuum between Ramallah and East Jerusalem, thus preventing the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. If the plan is not removed from the agenda of Israel´s far-right and pro-settler government, an eventual political resolution will become even harder to reach.”

Court Grants State Two-Month Delay in Khan Al-Ahmar Forced Displacement

On February 7th, the Israeli Supreme Court granted the State until April 2nd –  a two month delay when the State had requested four months delay – to submit a plan to forcibly remove the Khan Al Ahmar bedouin community (a war crime) from its lands just outside of Jerusalem. The Court also set May 1st as the date for a final hearing on a petition submitted by the Regavim settler group demanding the immediate removal of Khan Al-Ahmar.

As with previous delays (there have been a total of 9), the Court expressed its extreme displeasure with the State’s foot dragging. Justice Noam Sohlberg said in his ruling: 

“Suffice it to say that we are not at all satisfied with the conduct of the state…[the state’s behavior demonstrates] the existing situation is comfortable for it: Once every few months it files a request for an extension, which the petitioner opposes and the court accedes to through gritted teeth, and the world carries on as normal; deciding not to decide.”

In a statement revealing its ideological motivations, Regavim wrote:

“The government should formulate a working plan for the enforcement of the law in Khan al-Ahmar, as part of a fight against the Palestinian Authority’s institutionalized takeover of open areas in Judea and Samaria. The State of Israel must behave like the owner of the house, even in the face of American pressure, otherwise no one in the world will take it seriously.”

Israeli Cabinet Prepares for Vote to Amend 2005 Disengagement Law, Legalize Homesh Outpost & Yeshiva

The Israeli Cabinet’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation is expected to vote to amend the 2005 Disengagement Law at its February 12th meeting in order to pave the way for the reestablishment of four settlements in the northern West Bank. Jerusalem Post reports that the measure is expected to have enough support to be approved by the Cabinet and passed by the Knesset.

 If passed, the bill will allow Israel to grant retroactive legalization to the Homesh outpost and yeshiva – reestablishing Homesh as a fully legal, under Israeli law, settlement. The retroactive legalization of Homesh was agreed to in coalition agreements that formed the current Israeli government.

The vote comes as the government faces a deadline from the High Court to submit its position on the court-ordered evacuation of the illegal yeshiva settlers built at the site of the dismantled Homesh outpost. The State has, for nearly three years, delayed its response to a 2019 petition filed by Yesh Din seeking the removal the illegal Homesh outpost and yeshiva, as well as guarantee the site’s return to its Palestinian landowners. Despite Homesh being dismantled in 2005, Israel never permitted Palestinians to regain access to or control of the land, declaring it a closed military zone. That status has prevented Palestinians from entering the area,  while allowing settlers to routinely enter and (illegally, under Israeli law) inhabit the land, even (illegally) establishing a yeshiva there. That yeshiva, according to the Israeli NGO Kerem Navot, has become one of the West Bank’s “hardcore centers of settler terror”. Settlers have also wreaked terror on nearby Palestinian villages, most notably Burqa and Sebastia. One Israeli politician even went so far as to say that settlers are “carrying out a pogrom” in Burqa.

Bibi Pitches Massive Tunnel Construction in West Bank to French Investors

The Times of Israel reports that Netanyahu held a meeting with investors to pitch a massive construction project that would see highspeed tunnels be carved into the terrain throughout the West Bank in order to connect Israeli settlements together, and have more seamless access to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The underground highways would be designed in such a way to provide so-called “transportational contiguity” for both Israelis and Palestinians, in lieu of territorial contiguity for the latter (an idea endorsed in the Trump plan). The tunnel vision would effectively annex the settlements to Israel, and entrench a separate but unequal transportation grid that severely limits Palestinian freedom of movement, access to land, and more. The Israeli notion of “transportational contiguity” is put forward as an alternative to “territorial contiguity” which is no longer possible for Palestinians because of Israeli settlements, infrastructure, and control. The notion also gives permission to Israel for further settlement growth.

Smotrich Resigns, Brings Criminal Settler into Knesset

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich formally resigned his seat in the Knesset in order to focus his time on his Ministry postings, which not only include head of the Finance Ministry but also as a key minister within the Defense Ministry in control of the Civil Administration. Upon his resignation, the vacant Knesset seat has been filled by the next name on the Religious Zionist Party slate, and that happens to be Zvi Sukkot – a hardline settler who is one of the founders of Evyatar outpost.

Sukkot lives in the Yitzhar settlement – a hotbed of settler extremism and violence, the home of the notorious “Hilltop Youth” movement that has terrorized the Nablus region. He has been arrested on suspicion of arson in a 2010 attack on a Palestinian mosque. In 2012, he was temporarily banned from the West Bank on suspicion that he was orchestrating attacks on Palestinians.

Bonus Reads

  1. “In West Bank, Settlers Sense Their Moment After Far Right’s Rise” (New York Times)
  2. “Israel steps up Jerusalem home demolitions as violence rises” (AP)
  3. “From This Hill, You Can See the Next Intifada” (The Atlantic)
  4. “Threat Still Looms Despite Postponement of Largescale Wadi Qaddum Demolition” (Ir Amim)
  5. “ICJ sets July 25 for submission on illegality of Israel’s ‘occupation’” (Jerusalem Post)