Settlement & Annexation Report: March 24, 2023


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

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March 24, 2023

    1. Israel Reaffirms Commitment to Short Settlement Pause – Then Immediately Violates it, Publishing Tenders for 1,029 New Settlement Units
    2. Knesset Repeals Clauses of 2005 Disengagement Law, Allowing for Reestablishment of Four West Bank Settlements
    3. Netanyahu Contradicts Coalition Agreements in Attempt to Pacify International Outcry Over Disengagement Law Repeal
    4. Knesset Initiates Bill for West Bank “Admission Committees”
    5. U.S. State Department Issues Its 2022 Human Rights Report
    6. Bonus Reads

Israel Reaffirms Commitment to Short Settlement Pause – Then Immediately Violates it, Publishing Tenders for 1,029 New Settlement Units

At a second summit in the last month, Israeli and Palestinian officials signed a second joint communique brokered by Egypt, Jordan, and the United States. In it, the Israeli government once again pledged to pause discussion of new settlement units for four months and postpone the authorization of outposts for six months. 

On March 22nd, three days after the second communique was signed, the Israel Land Authority (ILA) published tenders for the construction of 1,029 new settlement units. Those units are as follows:

  • 89 units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo, located in southern Jerusalem between the isolated Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa and the West Bank city of Bethlehem;
  • 193 units in the Efrat settlement located south of Bethlehem, inside a settlement block that cuts deep into the West Bank. Efrat’s location and the route of the barrier wall around it, have literally severed the route of Highway 60 south of Bethlehem, cutting off Bethlehem and Jerusalem from the southern West Bank. The economic, political, and social impacts of the closure of Highway 60 at the Efrat settlement (there is literally a wall built across the highway) have been severe for the Palestinian population.; and,
  • 747 units in the Beitar Illit settlement, a massive ultra-orthodox settlement located west of Bethlehem.

On the publication of tenders for 1,029 settlement units, Peace Now said:

“This is yet another harmful and unnecessary construction initiative, as part of the messianic coup that is unfolding alongside the regime coup. The most extreme right-wing government in the history of the country is not only trampling on democracy but also on the possibility of a future political agreement, and on our relations with the US and friendly countries. Lies and violations of these commitments are a sure way to turn Israel into an isolated country.”

Further eroding the credibility of Israeli assurances, on the day after the summit concluded – a summit that was called in order to calm tensions that have been mounting across the West Bank and Israel – Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich made an inflammatory speech in France, during which he said:

“There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language.”

Smotrich delivered these remarks while standing at a podium bearing the flag of the Jewish Irgun, bearing a map of Israel that includes the West Bank and parts of Jordan. The map – and its meaning – was reaffirmed in Smotrich’s speech in which he reiterated his belief that Israeli Jews have a God-given, exclusive right to the land.

Smotrich has been roundly condemned for his incitement, including by the U.S. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel, who said

“The comments, which were delivered at a podium adorned with an inaccurate and provocative map, are offensive, they are deeply concerning, and, candidly, they’re dangerous. The Palestinians have a rich history and culture, and the United States greatly values our partnership with the Palestinian people.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said Smotrich’s remarks are: “conclusive evidence of the extremist, racist Zionist ideology that governs the parties of the current Israeli government.”

Knesset Repeals Clauses of 2005 Disengagement Law, Allowing for Reestablishment of Four West Bank Settlements

On March 21st, the Israeli Knesset passed a law repealing parts of the 2005 Disengagement Law (which legislated Israel’s dismantling of all settlements in the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the northern West Bank). The repeal of these clauses enables the reestablishment of all four of the settlements in the northern West Bank that were dismantled by the Israeli government as part of the 2005 Disengagement initiative – Homesh, Sa-Nur, Ganim and Kadim. The bill repealing these clauses in the Disengagement law — an act which sets the stage for efforts to more broadly undo Israel’s 2005 Disengagement — was supported even by members of the Israeli opposition. 

With the law amended, the government can now advance its plan to reestablish the Homesh settlement (see FMEP’s previous reporting on the efforts to reestablish Homesh). In the longer term, the repeal of these provisions will undoubtedly give rise to pressure to reestablish the other three dismantled settlements; and in the immediate aftermath of the repeal of these clauses, one right-wing minister in the current government is already raising the demand for Israel to reestablish settlements in the Gaza Strip, and MK Limor Son Har-Melec said shortly after the law was passed:

“We must not rest on our laurels and bask in the euphoria, and we must charge at the next two tasks that lie ahead of us tomorrow: the re-establishment of the four settlements that were evacuated [in the northern West Bank], and return home to the [evacuated Gaza settlement Gush Katif] that … became a nest of terror.”

As a reminder, the Homesh settlement was built almost entirely on land that belongs to (and is recognized by Israel as registered as belonging to Palestinian owners. Yet, after the Homesh settlement was dismantled in 2005, control over the land was never returned to its owners. The area was instead declared by the Israeli army to be a closed military zone, with Palestinains, including the owners of the land, barred from access. The Palestinians owners have been fighting for the right to access their own land since 2009, with no success. At the same time, the Israeli army has allowed Jewish Israeli settlers to access the area regularly, and even permitted the settlers to illegally (under Israeli law) establish a religious school and settlement outpost at the site. Rather than enforce Israel’s own laws against the settlers, the current Israeli government has agreed to grant retroactive approval to the settlers’ illegal presence. 

The Times of Israel notes that, even with the new law, the head of the IDF will have to sign a new military order that allows Israelis to enter the area. This will likely not be a problem, given that for years – long before this new law – the IDF has allowed Israelis to access and stay at the site. Moreover, Bezalel Smotrich, who is in effect the ruling sovereign over the West Bank after being handed vast powers within the Defense Ministry, tweeted that the repeal of the 2005 Disengagement Law “advances the regularisation of our presence at Homesh.” Note that “regularization” is a euphemism for retroactive legalization, granting post-facto approval to illegal settlement activity, which has the effect of establishing a new settlement. 

Settlers [who are the government] have moved quickly to press for next steps on the retroactive legalization of the Homesh yeshiva. On March 22nd, approximately 150 settlers invaded the site of Homesh and set up camp there.

Finally, the Israeli NGO Yesh Din, which closely documents settler- and settlement-related developments, notes that repealing the West Bank-related clauses in the Disengagement Law does not change the legal status of the land, which Israel has recognized as privately owned by Palestinians. This means, according to Yesh Din, that Israel still has “no legal option for legalizing the [Homesh] outpost.” Based on the commitments made by this new government, it seems probable that this legal “problem” will be just one more challenge to be overcome.

Netanyahu Contradicts Coalition Agreements in Attempt to Pacify International Outcry Over Disengagement Law Repeal

After days of international criticism over the repeal of clauses in the 2005 Disengagement Law, Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a statement saying that the Israeli government has “no intention of establishing new settlements in the area.” Axios reports that the U.S. and several other European nations attempted to persuade Netanyahu to block the bill or postpone the Knesset’s vote, but Netanyahu said it was part of his commitments to his ruling partners.

The United States took a lead role in reprimanding the Israeli government for amending the 2005 Disengagement Law. U.S. criticism included a summons for Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog to attend an impromptu, reportedly tense, meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, as well as a lengthy statement by the U.S. Department of State Spokesperson, Vedant Patel, which ended with the announcement that the U.S. is considering several options in response to Israel’s West Bank policy.

Knesset Initiates Bill for West Bank “Admission Committees”

Mondoweiss reports that on March 20th in a preliminary reading, the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee approved a bill that would allow Israel “admission committees” to be established for areas where settlement expansion is proceeding, including the South Hebron Hills, the Jordan Valley, and the Galilee. These “Admission Committees” are already established in Israel proper, so this new bill will allow extend Israeli domestic law into the West Bank.

Explaining the Admissions Committee law, Adalah writes:

“The Admissions Committees Law legalizes “Admission Committees” that operate in hundreds of small community towns built on state land in the Naqab (Negev) and Galilee. The law gives Admission Committees, bodies that select applicants for housing units and plots of land, almost full discretion to accept or reject individuals from living in these towns. The Committees include a representative from the Jewish Agency or the World Zionist Organization, quasi-governmental entities. The Committees, in practice, filter out Arab Palestinian applicants and others from marginalized groups.

While one of the law’s provisions states a duty to respect the right to equality and prevent discrimination, the law allows these Committees to reject applicants deemed “unsuitable to the social life of the community… or the social and cultural fabric of the town,” thereby legitimizing the exclusion of entire groups. The law also authorizes Admissions Committees to adopt criteria determined by individual community towns themselves based on their “special characteristics”, including those community towns that have defined themselves as having a “Zionist vision”.”

U.S. State Department Issues Its 2022 Human Rights Report

The U.S. Department of State published its annual report on human rights conditions in every country in the world. The publication is always notable because of the ever-evolving treatment of the occupied Palestinian territories, and for the closely scrutinized statements regarding Israel’s treatment of Palestinians living under Israel’s military occupation.

Notable inclusions and omissions include:

1 – The Biden State Department opted to maintain the new format imposed on the report by the Trump Administration, with a section entitled “Israel, West Bank, and Gaza.” Under this format, which the Biden Administration also used in its 2020 and 2021 reports, there is a section on Israel (looking at the practices of the Israeli government in sovereign Israeli territory, including East Jerusalem) and a separate section on the West Bank & Gaza (looking primarily at the practices of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the “Israeli authorities in the West Bank”). Prior to the Trump era, the report and its sections were entitled  “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” The Trump administration adopted the new section titles in its 2017 report and completed its elimination of the word “occupation” in its 2018 report. The Biden Administration’s decision to continue this new format was widely reported when the administration’s first report was released in early 2021.

2 – The report acknowledged, but did not take a position on, Israel’s declaration of six Palestinian organizations as terrorist entities. The report says, “Israeli authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials.” This is notable because the Biden Administration has come under intense pressure to mirror Israel’s terrorist designation of these organizations, but thus far has refrained from doing so. The Biden Administration has also not contradicted or criticized Israel’s declarations, and has instead repeatedly stated that it is investigating the matter and reviewing information on the groups’ alleged ties to terrorism that the Israeli government has presented to the U.S., and has explicitly left the door open for Israel to continue to provide more “evidence” (incentivizing Israel to continue to violate the rights of Palestinian human rights defenders, including by arresting people and in effect threatening to hold them indefinitely without due process unless they confess to crimes or incriminate others — all of which is then offered as new “evidence.”).

3 – In reporting on the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the report deferred to an Israel account which said that it was a “high possibility” that Abu Akleh – who was wearing a flak jackets that clearly marked her as “press” — was hit by Israeli gunfire “accidentally,” but not deliberately. This narrative is contradicted by Palestinian eyewitness accounts, in addition to forensic scientists’ reconstruction of the events leading up to her death which show conclusively that Abu Akleh was killed by IDF gunfire and that it is improbable in the extreme that the shooting was not deliberate. Notably, the report included mention of Abu Akleh’s death under the “freedom of expression” section, not under the section where extrajudicial killings were covered.

4 – The report, like in years past, does not explicitly criticize settlement construction, which has been shown to be the driving force behind the systematic human rights abuses against Palestinians.

Bonus Reads

  1. Protection of Civilians Report | 28 February – 13 March 2023” (OCHA)
  2. “This Is the Disturbing Reality of Israeli Land Theft and Right-wing Rule” (Amira Hass, Haaretz)
  3. “Editorial | They Frequented West Bank Hilltops and Interrogation Rooms. Now They Set Police Policy” (Haaretz)
  4. “Ben-Gvir’s Chief of Staff Bosses Police Around Despite Not Being Employed as Civil Servant” (Haaretz)
  5. “Armed settlers break into Palestinian family home under cover of darkness” (+972 Magazine)