Settlement & Annexation Report: February 25, 2021


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February 25, 2021

  1. Jerusalem Cable Car Project Dealt Blow by Court
  2. Israel Breaks Ground on New Settler Bypass Road Near Nablus
  3. Israeli Army Chief Meets with Violent Settlers (Instead of Arresting them)
  4. Archaeological Accident Gives Pretext For Settler Takeover in Area B
  5. Bonus Material

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Jerusalem Cable Car Project Dealt Blow by Court

On February 23rd, the Israeli High Court of Justice issued an order against the construction of the Jeruslame cable car, a project advanced by – and closely connected to – the Elad settler organization. The project is opposed by a broad coalition of city planners, archaeologists, and academics, who oppose it not only because it was advanced in a highly suspicious manner, but also because building a cable car over historic sites in Jerusalem would do irreparable damage to the integrity of the city’s history.

In its order, the High Court asked the State of Israel to answer five questions, the substance of which suggest that the Court is concerned about both the irregular planning process and the archeological heresies construction of the cable car would inflict. 

The NGO Emek Shaveh, which opposes the plan, commented:

“The questions raised by the judges bring to light once again the many flaws of the project, particularly the irregular approval process through the National Infrastructure Committee, a fast-track body usually used to advance national transportation projects, rather than through the usual planning committees as well as its destructive ramifications for minority groups such as the Karaite community. The Cable Car project should never have seen the light of day. Jerusalemites and a long list of civil society organizations have for the past three years been asking the same questions put forward yesterday by the High Court but have been ignored. The flaws outlined by the High Court prove that Jerusalem must be protected from those who wish to destroy the city and harm its residents. We hope the developers of the project will demonstrate responsibility, internalize the criticism against the project and stop wasting valuable public resources on such a destructive vision for Jerusalem.”

As a reminder, the Jerusalem cable car project is an initiative backed by the powerful, state-backed Elad settler group and advanced by the Israeli Tourism Ministry. The State of Israel – which has pushed the project forward in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and despite commitments by the government to focus on public health matters only – was forced to publicly admit that the implementation of the cable car project will require the confiscation of privately owned Palestinian land in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem. 

While public efforts to “sell” the cable car plan have focused on its purported role in helping to grow Jerusalem’s tourism industry or in serving supposedly vital transportation needs, in reality the purpose of the project is to further entrench settler control in Silwan, via archeology and tourism sites, while simultaneously delegitimizing, dispossessing, and erasing the Palestinian presence there. Notably, the cable car line is slated to terminate at the settler-run Kedem Center compound (Elad’s large tourism center, currently under construction at the entrance of the Silwan neighborhood, in the shadows of the Old City’s walls and Al-Aqsa Mosque).

Emek Shaveh and other non-governmental organizations, including  Who Profits and Terrestrial Jerusalem, have repeatedly challenged (and provided evidence discrediting) the government’s contention that the cable car will serve a legitimate transportation need in Jerusalem, and have clearly enumerated the obvious political drivers behind the plan, the archeological heresies it validates, and the severe negative impacts the cable car project will have on Palestinian residents of Silwan.

Israel Breaks Ground on New Settler Bypass Road Near Nablus

The settlers’ news outlet Arutz Sheva reports that the State has begun construction on the Huwwara Bypass Road, a new route long pined for by settlers.

As reported last week, the Huwwara Bypass Road is designed to residents of Nablus-area settlements to bypass the Palestinian village of Huwwara (which is an area with heavy traffic congestion from daily commuters), in order to more easily/directly access Jerusalem. This bypass road has long been a top priority for the settlers, who have complained about the long commute to Jerusalem and the limits this puts on the potential for growth of Nablus-area settlements. Building the road also gained urgency for the settlers after the release of the Trump Plan’s conceptual map, which left the area where the road is slated to be built within the borders a future Palestinian “state.”

Arutz Sheva did not mince words about the importance of this road, writing this week:

“This is one of the most expensive and strategic projects in Judea and Samaria and its cost is estimated at ILS 260 million. The road is intended to connect the center of the country to the localities of Gav HaHar, Yitzhar, Itamar, Elon Moreh and Har Bracha, and will provide a safe trip for residents and passengers to these areas.”

Speaking at the ground breaking ceremony, settler leader Yossi Dagan also stressed the significance of this road to the settlers’ fight for sovereignty over the West Bank. Dagan said:

“This is a groundbreaking, historic moment for Samaria and the entire settlement effort. In about two years, the mountain settlements will become accessible to the center of the country. The road is expected to make traveling in the area safer for both Arabs and Jews, it is hoped that paving the road will lead to prosperity in the area.”

Dagan’s assertion that the road will benefit Palestinians in the area glosses over the fact that Palestinians were stripped of their property rights when Israel unilaterally expropriated private Palestinian land along the route of the road in preparation for construction. On this issue, Peace Now writes:

“A bypass road requires extensive expropriation of Palestinian land. All roads are planned from the Israeli interest toward the settlements and their development. Even if in some cases the Palestinians can benefit from these roads, they are not paved according to a planning conception of the Palestinian needs. This raises the question of Israel’s legal excuse to confiscate land in order to build roads in occupied territory by claiming that the roads will also serve the protected Palestinian population.”

Israeli Army Chief Meets with Violent Settlers (Instead of Arresting them)

Amidst a sharp spike in settler violence directed primarily at Palestinians and their property, but also at Israeli forces, two very senior Israeli security officials held a meeting with leaders in the violent “Hilltop Youth” settler movement, which has carried out a weeks-long crime spree following the death of one of its members. That member, Ahuvia Sandak, died as a result of a car crash while fleeing Israeli police who gave chase to a group of settlers who had been throwing rocks at Palestinian cars. 

Haaretz reports that the two Israeli security officials – Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai and Civil Administration head Brig. Gen. Fares Atila – wanted to “create rapprochement and calm things down.” An army source told Haaretz that “The general explained that the army is an agency that carries out the law of the State of Israel, and we’re trying to find common ground.”

Haaretz columnist Zvi Ba’arel writes of this meeting, and others that preceded it:

“When the head of Israel Defense Forces Central Command, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, meets with “hilltop youth,” residents of the Maoz Esther outpost, in order to “create rapprochement and calm things down” in the words of a military representative, he is conducting negotiations with terrorists…For the “representatives of the outposts” – a new geopolitical term – who met with Yadai on Monday and last month, these meetings are a demonstration of power, not that of the IDF, but theirs…It’s the “representatives” who conduct the negotiations, who determine the rules, who decide if and when they will embark on the next terror activity, and who demand that the IDF understand and accept their motives and see them as a body no less legitimate than the IDF itself. If the army wants a tahadiya (cessation of hostilities) with the “outposts,” if it is begging that the thugs stop throwing stones at soldiers or setting police vans on fire, it must pay a political price. Or, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often promises Hamas, “quiet will be answered with quiet.” The IDF, according to the “representatives of the outposts,” must stop chasing the gangs, refrain from demolishing outposts and primarily, preserve the status quo that has been rooted for decades and that maintains that attacks against Palestinians are an internal matter that concerns the relations between the gangs and the Palestinians. Those are the conditions for quiet. The IDF does not really control them.”

Archaeological Accident Gives Pretext For Settler Takeover in Area B

Following the accidental damage to an outer stone wall at the Mount Ebal archaeological site near Nablus, settlers are moving to assert control over the site, which is located in Area B of the West Bank — i.e., the 21% of the occupied territories which assigned to Palestinian civilian control (Israel maintains security control over that area). The incident furthers a settler strategy to use concern (real or feigned) for archeology as an impetus and justification for Israel to take control over more Palestinian land and even seize archeological relics in Palestinian possession.

The story of the recent drama over Mount Ebal – an historic site with stone features that date back to the 11th century BCE – started earlier this month, when a Palestinian construction crew building a new road (plans for which were approved by Israel) demolished a part of the archeological site without realizing the structure was significant. When the damage was detected, settlers and their allies went to the media to decry the incident and make larger claims about the Palestinian Authority’s allegedly malicious disregard for preserving archeological sites and relics under its control. Naftali Bennet went so far as to accuse the PA of an “Islamic State-like act” (suggesting, in effect, that the damage was intentional).  Settlers and their allies openly suggested that lack of Israeli control over archeological sites in Area B is the problem, and ought to be changed – with Israeli Reuvin Rivlin calling for the IDF to take control of the Mount Ebal site outright.

Making further headlines, Samaria Regional Council Chairman Yossi Dagan staged a covert operation to “remedy” the damage at the Mount Ebal site, but the work Dagan facilitated was not overseen by a trained archaeologist, and the “restoration” was so problematic that even one of the archaeologists working for the settlers, Dr. Assaf Avraham, said:

“I don’t know what is more of a tragedy…the original destruction or the attempt at reconstruction.”

The Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh, which is composed of archaeologists and experts in West Bank heritage sites, said in response to the Mount Ebal drama:

“Contrary to how the destruction was presented by the settlers, the wall that was destroyed last week was an outer wall and not a part of the main structure. The contractor who paved the road thought it was a terrace and the mayor of  town of Asira ash-Shamaliya’s said they were unaware that the wall was part of the site. However the settlers, right wing politicians and the Hebrew media used a clip from a video posted on  the Asira ash-Shamaliya’s facebook page to claim that destruction was nationalistically motivated even though in the video, the contractor is merely describing his work practices and sharing with the residents the progress in paving the road. Some have gone as far as to claim that the destruction is akin to ISIS’ practices. Claiming the video is proof of a nationalistic motive behind the destruction of the wall serves the ongoing  campaign to  place antiquity sites in Area B under Israeli control.  “

This incident comes one month after the state of Israel committed funding to a new settler initiative to surveil archeological sites under Palestinian control. While the objective of protecting antiquities might appear uncontroversial and apolitical, the true objective behind this effort is to support yet another pretext to surveil and police Palestinians, and yet another means to dispossess them of their properties. It is the result of a campaign that has taken place over the past year in which settlers have been escalating their calls for the Israeli government to seize antiquities located in Palestinian communities across the West Bank, especially in Area C, which Israel today treats as virtually (and legally) indistinguishable from sovereign Israeli territory.

The funding for the settlers to police Palestinians in the name of protecting antiquities is just the latest victory in the settlers’ campaign to use the issue of antiquities protection as a pretext to further squeeze Palestinians, especially in Area C. Previous victories include the Israeli Civil Administration’s recent issuance of expropriation orders for two archaeological sites located on privately owned Palestinian property northwest of Ramallah. The expropriations – the first of their kind in 35 years – come amidst a new campaign by settlers lobbying the government to take control of such sites, based on the settlers’ claims that antiquities are being stolen and the sites are being mismanaged by Palestinians. The settlers’ pressure is also credited as the impetus behind the government’s clandestine raid of a Palestinian village in July 2020 to seize an ancient font. The Palestinian envoy to UNESCO, Mounir Anastas, recently called on the United Nations to pressure Israel into returning the font to the Palestinian authorities.

A new settler group calling itself “Shomrim Al Hanetzach” (“Guardians of Eternity”) recently began surveying areas in the West Bank that Israel has designated as archeaological sites in order to call in Israeli authorities to demolish Palestinian construction in these areas. The group communicates its findings to the Archaeology Unit of the Israeli Civil Administration (reminder: the Civil Administration is the arm of the Israeli Defense Ministry which since 1967 has functioned as the de facto sovereign over the West Bank). The Archaeology Unit, playing its part, then delivers eviction and demolition orders against Palestinians, claiming that the structures damage antiquities in the area. As a reminder, in 2017, Israel designated 1,000 new archaeological sites in Area C of the West Bank.

This new group, not coincidentally, is an offshoot of the radical Regavim organization, which among other things works to push Israeli authorities to demolish Palestinian construction (on Palestinians’ own land) that lacks Israeli permits (permits that Israel virtually never grants). The group’s leaders accuse the Palestinian Authority of mismanaging the archeological sites, they accuse Palestinians of looting them, and they demand that Israel annex all the sites. The new group has also raised public alarm about the Trump Plan, alleging that hundreds of biblical sites in the West Bank are slated to become Palestinian territory. 

Bonus Material

  1. “Selective Conservation Policy and Funding for Minority Heritage Sites in Israel” (Emek Shaveh)
  2. “The Europeans Don’t Really Care About the Palestinians Either” (Haaretz // Amira Hass)
  3. “Netanyahu’s battle for settler votes in Ma’aleh Adumim” (Jerusalem Post)
  4. “Settler movement takes over Jewish National Fund” (Al-Monitor)
  5. Jews split over storied charity’s support for settlements” (AP)