Settlement & Annexation Report: February 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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February 24, 2023

  1. With New Powers Given to Smotrich, Israel Annexes the West Bank (Even Without a Formal Declaration) 
  2. Final Hearing on E-1 Settlement Set for March 27th
  3. Israel Advances More than 7k Settlement Units & Establishes 4 More New Settlements
  4. U.S.-Brokered Compromise at the UN: Bibi Makes  – and then breaks – Promises to Biden Admin on Settlements, Outposts, Raids, and Demolitions
  5. Multiple East Jerusalem Evictions Expected in March
  6. New Report: Displacement via Bureaucracy in East Jerusalem
  7. Bonus Reads

With New Powers Given to Smotrich, Israel Annexes the West Bank (Even Without a Formal Declaration) 

On February 23rd, Netanyahu reached a deal to change the way Israel exercises authority over the West Bank. This new arrangement represents the extension of Israeli civilian/domestic authority over the entire West Bank. As such, it represents Israeli annexation of the West Bank, even without formal declaration of annexation.

Specifically: from 1967 until this week, the Minister of Defense was the de facto sovereign in the West Bank, with total authority over matters related to both Palestinians and settlers. With the deal reached this week, authority in the West Bank will now be split between Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (acting in his capacity as a “Minister in the Defense Ministry”). 

While the agreement takes pains to leave a tiny amount of power over West Bank civilian affairs with the Defense Minister in order to maintain a thin veneer of compliance with international law (the only authority left to Gallant with respect to “civilian” affairs will be to demolish illegal settler activity “in case of security and irregular events,” and even then, Smotrich must be given advance notice of any such demolition), in effect Smotrich will become the new reigning sovereign over the West Bank. According to the deal, he will exercise his authority via the establishment of a new “Settlement Administration” within the Defense Ministry, that he will lead (and appoint his own deputy to assist in leading). This “Settlements Administration” will enjoy virtually total autonomy and unchecked power, with almost no accountability to anyone in the Israeli Ministry of Defense (Gallant in principle can overrule Smotrich’s decisions but must put his reasoning in writing after first meeting with Smotrich to hear his case, and even then, Gallant cannot issue any order to overrule Smotrich).  Importantly, the agreement allows Smotrich to systematically apply Israeli law over the settlements.  

Itay Epstein, a lawyer of humanitarian law and senior advisor to the Norwegian Refugee Council, explains the totality and impact of Smotich’s powers:

“Spatial planning in the West Bank will come under the authority of the Minister [Smotrich], including authority over the High Planning Council, responsible for establishing and expanding settlements as well as considering Palestinian spatial plans and permit applications in Area C…All matters related to the regularization of “informal” settlement outposts and satellite neighborhoods will come under the sole authority of the Minister, who can endorse 147 such outposts most disruptive to a contiguous future Palestinian State…The [Civil Administration] Enforcement Unit, responsible for the destruction of Palestinian-owned structures built in Area C, as well as the seizure and destruction of donor-funded humanitarian relief, will come under the sole authority of the Minister…The Minister will have the authority to declare new ‘natural reserves’, a primary tool in the appropriation of Palestinian land (in areas A through C) and exclusion of Palestinians from land use across the entire West Bank…All matters related to housing, land, and property rights, including land ownership settlement, surveying, and registration, will come under the sole authority of the Minister. This is the primary tool for expropriating land, and abrogating Palestinian ownership claims…The planning and implementation of infrastructure across the West Bank (areas A through C) will come under the exclusive authority of the Minster, including surface roads, water and sanitation, energy and renewable energy, telecommunications, and waste management.”

Renowned Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard tweets:

“this is a dramatic change in the structure of governance over the occupied territory. Very broad administrative authorities pertaining to the majority of the governing powers in the West Bank are being transferred into hands that are not of the military commander of the occupied territory. From now on, those powers will be held by the minister in the Ministry of Defense, who will de facto serve as the governor of the West Bank…

International laws of belligerent occupation state that an occupied territory will be temporarily administered by the occupying force (that is, the army) which, along with security considerations, will be obligated to promote the interests of the occupied people. Transferring powers to Israeli civilian hands is an act of de jure annexation because it entails removing power from the occupying military and placing it directly in the hands of the government – this is an expression of sovereignty. The bottom line is that the agreement signed today is simultaneously a giant leap of legal annexation of the West Bank and an act of perpetuating the regime’s apartheid nature.”

Further, the agreement attempts to clarify and carefully craft the new, divided chain of command, which – in the end – creates incredible confusion. This confusion is a feature, not a bug, enabling Gallant and Smotrich to publicly, and disingenuously, to claim that the West Bank remains under the administration of the Israeli army as a separate regime from that of the Israeli state, and to assert that “nothing in this document changes the legal status of the West Bank, the laws applied within, or the government’s authority over it.” 

On this argument, Sfard comments:

“The agreement includes two clauses aimed at obfuscating the transfer of powers by presenting the governor’s alleged subordination to the Minister of Defense, but according to the document, the cases in which the Minister of Defense can override the governor are extreme cases and even when this is done, the military commander of the West Bank will be bypassed, as he no longer holds authority.

The agreement also states that the governor will work to deepen the powers of the Israeli governmental authorities in the areas of Israeli settlements a process which will promote the unification of government powers and geographically expand their direct legal authority in the West Bank. Or, in other words: stretching Israeli sovereignty beyond the Green Line. The agreement also states that the governor will lead a process of expanding the dual legal system so that Israeli legislation by the Knesset will be applied more fully than it is today to the Israelis in the West Bank.”

In addition, in trying to manage the egos of Smotrich and Gallant – and prepare for inevitable disagreements – the agreement makes Prime Minister Netanyahu the ultimate arbiter of disputes between the two, in effect doubling down on the de facto annexation by giving the Prime Minister authority over decisions military decisions related to West Bank civilian governance. 

Final Hearing on E-1 Settlement Set for March 27th 

On March 27th, a subcommittee of the Higher Planning Council will convene to discuss objections to the E-1 settlement plan — a final step in the approval of the plan. Final consideration of the E-1 plan has been delayed several times, most recently in September 2022, due to international opposition to the plan. The E-1 settlement is slated to be built in the West Bank on land abutting the border of Jerusalem to the northeast, and is considered by the international community to be a “doomsday” settlement, in what its construction would mean for the two-state solution. 

This upcoming meeting promises to be a decisive one for the long-pending E-1 plan, and could very well  result in the Committee – which is now under the authority of longtime settler advocate Bezalel Smotrich – granting final approval to the highly contentious plan. Barring intensive outside pressure, additional postponement of the hearing seems highly improbable, given the Israeli domestic politics and the upcoming national election. 

As a reminder: in its current form, the E-1 plan provides for the construction of 3,412 new settlement units on a site located northeast of Jerusalem. The site is home to several Palestinian bedouin communities, comprising 3,000 people, including Khan al-Ahmar, which Israel has already undertaken to forcibly displace (many attempts). Long called a “doomsday” settlement by supporters of a two-state solution, construction of the E-1 settlement would sever East Jerusalem from its West Bank hinterland, preventing East Jerusalem from ever functioning as a viable Palestinian capital. 

E-1 would also cut the West Bank effectively in half, isolating the northern West Bank from the southern West Bank and foreclosing the possibility of the establishment of a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity. Israel’s “answer” to this concern has long been to argue that Palestinians don’t need territorial contiguity, and that new roads can instead provide “transportational continuity.” To this end, Israel has already built the so-called “Sovereignty Road” – a sealed road that enables Palestinians to pass through, but not to enter, the E-1 area. That road is wholly under Israel’s control (meaning Israel can cut off Palestinian passage through it at any time). In January 2021, then-Prime Minister  Netanyahu promised to increase funding for the “Sovereignty Road” as part of the drive to get E-1 built. Further, Netanayhu also recently pitched a room of French investors on a vision to build high speed tunnels throughout the West Bank to accomplish this task.

And another reminder: there have been attempts to promote the E-1 plan since the early 1990s, but due to wall-to-wall international opposition, the plan was not advanced until 2012, when Netaynuahu ordered it to be approved for deposit for public review (a key step in the approval process), ostensibly as payback for the Palestinians seeking recognition at the United Nations. Following an outcry from the international community, the plan again went into a sort of dormancy, only to be put back on the agenda by Netanyahu in February 2020, when he was facing his third round of elections in the two years.  Also, as a reminder: under the Trump Plan (which the Biden Administration has yet to comment on), the area where E-1 is located is slated to become part of Israel.

Israel Advances More than 7k Settlement Units & Establishes 4 More New Settlements

Over the course of two days (Feb 22-23, 2023), the Israeli High Planning Council advanced plans for 7,287 new settlement units.  With these approvals, Israel has advanced more plans in 2023 (7,287 units) than in 2022 (4,427 units) or 2021 (3,645 units).

In addition, during this same period the Council granted retroactive legalization to three outposts while advancing plans for the retroactive legalization of a fourth outpost. The Council’s decision to legalize (under Israeli law) these outposts comes in addition to the ten outposts “legalized” by the Israeli Security Cabinet last week — meaning that in less than 2 weeks the new Israeli government has (so far) approved the establishment of 14 new settlements.

Three of the four outposts legalized by the High Planning Council this week were authorized as “new neighborhoods” of existing settlements, but in reality these outposts – which are not contiguous with the built-up area of existing settlements – are new settlements. The outposts granted authorization by the Higher Planning Council are:

  1. Mevo’ot Yericho (181 units granted final approval) – which was authorized by the Security Cabinet over a year ago, but is only now receiving final approval for its master plan from the Higher Planning Council. This outpost is located near Jericho in the Jordan Valley. Peace Now reports that the outpost currently has 60 units built, so the approval of this plan triples the size of the settlement.
  2. Pnei Kedem (120 units granted final approval), authorized as a new neighborhood of Metzad settlement, located northeast of Hebron. This plan will triple the size of the existing outpost.
  3. Nofei Nehemia (212 units granted final approval, most of which were already built illegally), authorized as a neighborhood of the Rehelim settlement (which itself was once an outpost granted retroactive legalization), located south of Nablus. Importantly, the Nofei Nehemia outpost is separated from the Rehelim settlement by Route 60 – the major north-south highway in the West Bank.
  4. Netiv Ha’avot (433 units, approved for public deposit), authorized as a neighborhood of the Elazar settlement. Should this plan receive final approval, the government will have handed settlers not one but two new settlements as compensation for the demolition of 14 units in the Netiv Ha’avot outpost that were built partially on privately owned Palestinian land.. 

At the last minute, the committee decided to delay its consideration of a plan that would have “legalized” the Zayit Ra’anan outpost. That plan outlines 189 units to be authorized as a “neighborhood” of the Talmon settlement, located north of Ramallah. Peace Now reports this plan was put on the agenda “almost out of nowhere” and that there are only a few caravans at this outpost currently.

In addition to authorizing four new settlements, the Higher Planning Council also:

  • Granted final approval for the construction of 1,900 units 
  • Approved plans for 5,257 units for public deposit.

Peace Now notes that these plans include the retroactive authorization of approximately 1,000 units which settlers have illegally built in settlements. For Peace Now’s data table tracking these approvals, please see here.

As a reminder, the High Planning Council is a body with the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, which is now under the control of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, in his capacity “Minister in the Defense Ministry” who in that role now enjoys virtually total control over civilian/settlement matters in the West Bank  (see the first section of this report for details).

 Peace Now said in a statement

“The Israeli government is carrying out in full swing an act of annexation of the occupied territories. Just as the judicial coup that the government is advancing is an existential threat to Israeli democracy, so too is this annexation. Advancing the construction of thousands of housing units in the settlements and authorizing 15 outposts within a week are acts of de facto annexation. Building settlements in the occupied territories is a war crime, and annexation without granting citizenship to Palestinians is considered a crime of apartheid. These actions are directed first and foremost against the Palestinians and are with the intention to prevent the establishment of a future Palestinian state by means of taking control of Area C.”

U.S.-Brokered Compromise at the UN: Bibi Makes  – and then breaks – Promises to Biden Admin on Settlements, Outposts, Raids, and Demolitions

This week, the United States succeeded in convincing the Palestinian leadership to forgo its push for a Security Council vote on a resolution condemning Israel’s settlement activity, and instead settle for an exceedingly weak statement on the matter signed by the UN Security Council, including the United States. 

In exchange for this significant downgrade of international action, Israel reportedly promised that it would not authorize any additional settlement plans or outpost legalizations for some time, with some outlets suggesting Israel committed to a six-month reprieve. This pause, of course, did not stop Israel from advancing 7,000+ plans this week, including the creation of 15 new settlements.

Israel further agreed to pause its concerted efforts to demolish and evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem and Area C of the West Bank, and to reduce military incursions into Palestinian cities. This of course did not stop Israel from conducted a massive mid-day raid into the old city of Nablus this weekkilling 11 Palestinians, included a teenager and three elderly. Over one hundred Palesitians were hospitalized, including an 11-year old who was shot in the leg and got shrapnel wounds to his liver, all while going to the market to get a sandwich. Lastly, press reports that Israel committed to several economic measures to help the Palestinian Authority, including increasing tax revenues.

The U.S. also promised to invite Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House, and committed to submitting a request to Israel to reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.

On February 20th, the UN Security Council released its statement, which did not strongly condemn Israeli settlement activity – only expressed “deep concern and dismay” at Israel’s recent settlement approvals. Instead, the statement called on all sides to deescalate and condemned acts of violence by all parties.

Notably, this is the first time in eight years the Security Council has produced a formal product related to Palestine, wit the last action being the 2016 resolution on settlements (which the U.S. abstained from). Palestinian diplomat Riyad Mansour told the Washington Post that 14 out of 15 members of the Security Council supported the draft resolution, clearly intimating the United States is the sole reason the resolution was dropped in favor of a statement.

Multiple East Jerusalem Evictions Expected in March

Ir Amim reports that there are four pending eviction cases threatening to displace 150 Palestinians in early March, coinciding with the holy month of Ramadan. Those cases, summarized by Ir Amim, are:

  • Gaith-Sub Laban Family, Muslim Quarter, Old City – the family of veteran Ir Amim staff member, Ahmad Sub Laban, faces eviction…on March 15 following the Supreme Court’s decision to deny their request to appeal. All legal remedies have been exhausted, and hence the family is at risk of immediate eviction. Save for state intervention, there is no further recourse to prevent their displacement.
  • Shehadeh Family, Batan al-Hawa, Silwan – The District Court ruled to evict the family by March 1. A request to appeal to the Supreme Court is currently pending. 
  • Salem Family, Um Haroun, Sheikh Jarrah – A decisive administrative hearing on their pending eviction is scheduled for March 9 at the Enforcement and Collections Authority. If authorized, the eviction could potentially be carried out by the end of March.
  • Dajani, Daoud, Hammad Families, Kerem al Jaouni, Sheikh Jarrah – a Supreme Court hearing on their appeal is scheduled for March 29. While a similar ruling is expected to that of the one handed down last year in the cases of four other families from the neighborhood, the outcome is still not definitive.

For a deep dive into the legal cases of each family, please see Ir Amim’s comprehensive reporting.

As a reminder, Netanyahu has reportedly promised the United States that it will suspend evictions for a few months. However, Israel made several other promises the United States that it has already violated – including the legalization of more outposts and provocative, violent military actions in the West Bank.

Ir Amim writes:

“Evictions of Palestinian families and settler takeovers of their homes have increasingly been used as a strategy to cement Israeli hegemony of the Old City Basin, the most religiously and politically sensitive part of Jerusalem and a core issue of the conflict. These measures are reinforced by a constellation of settler-operated tourist sites, which together serve to alter the character of the space and forge a ring of Israeli control around the area. This creates an irreversible reality on the ground that deliberately subverts efforts towards an agreed political resolution on Jerusalem.   Moreover, such actions severely violate the individual and collective rights of Palestinians in the city and contravenes International Law, while carrying an acute humanitarian impact on the affected families. Since the eviction claims are based on inherently discriminatory laws, the legal recourse is limited. The political nature of these measures hence requires state intervention as a result of concerted engagement.”

New Report: Displacement via Bureaucracy in East Jerusalem

In a new report, Who Profits explains how Israel – following its illegal annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 – has weaponized government bureaucracy in order to expand settlement and displace Palestinians. Who Profits zooms in on two key levers of power that Israel wields to achieve these goals: land registration and residency permits.

On land registration, Who Profits provides an explanation of the history, the mechanisms, and the consequences of land registration on Palestinian. The entire report, but especially this section, is worth reading closely because it unpacks how the land registration process works. Who Profits explains the scale of potential harm involved:

“Around 90% of land in East Jerusalem (30% of all land in the city),31 was never registered, as Israel froze all land registration proceedings until the launch of this formal land drive in 2018. Although framed as part of a larger package to uplift East Jerusalem and its Palestinian inhabitants’ socio-economic conditions and development, land registration is a key part of Israel’s larger geopolitical agenda of Judaizing and strengthening Israeli governance on the ground, through which it can entrench “sovereignty over East Jerusalem,” as succinctly articulated by the then Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked. According to the Civic Coalition to Defend Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem, the land registration process may lead to the confiscation of around 60% of Palestinian land and mass Palestinian dispossession, in violation of international law.”

On residency rights, Who Profits digs into Israel’s “center of life” policy, under which Palestinians may lose their Jerusalem residency if the State believes that an individuals “center of life” is outside of the city. Who Profits writes: “The process imposed by the Israeli Ministry of Interior on Palestinians in Jerusalem to prove that Jerusalem is their “center of life” is deliberately convoluted, draconian, and time-consuming, functioning as an additional means to surveil Palestinian Jerusalemites’ everyday lives and ultimately push them out of their city.” Who Profits profiles three private companies which Israel has contracted with to conduct investigations in Palestinians lives, to support the revocation of residency rights.

This new Who Profits reports dovetails perfectly with the recent legal analysis “A Theory of Annexation” which examines how the Israeli state is similarly using bureaucracy to annex the West Bank. So, whether the goal be displacement or annexation, bureaucratic enforcement is clearly a major tool and tactic to achieve it.

Bonus Reads

  1. “Police arrest 5 settlers over clash with IDF soldiers, torching of Palestinian car” (The Times of Israel)
  2. “The White House Is Still Whitewashing Israel’s West Bank Settlement Project” (Haaretz)
  3. “Why Israel’s goal of pacifying the Palestinians is failing” (+972 Magazine)