Settlement & Annexation Report: January 27, 2023


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

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January 27, 2023

    1. De Facto Annexation in action: Bibi Confirms that Smotrich Now Runs the West Bank
    2. With Top U.S. Official In Country, Netanyahu Delays New Settlement Plan
    3. Coalition Deal Includes Unilateral Annexation of West Bank Archaeological Sites
    4. Concern Grows that New Gov Will Proceed with Mount of Olives “Park” Plan
    5. Palestinians Protest Settler Cultivating Land Near Ramallah
    6. Bonus Reads

De Facto Annexation in action: Bibi Confirms that Smotrich Now Runs the West Bank 

The battle over a newly-established illegal outpost has provided the first concrete look at the extent to which the new Israeli government has handed authority over the West Bank to radical, pro-annexationist Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism party).

The outpost was established January 19th, ostensibly to honor the recently deceased Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a longtime leader of the settler movement and a defender of violent Jewish extremists. It was established near the Migdalim settlement in the northern West Bank, to the east of the Ariel settlement.

On January 20th the outpost was dismantled by the IDF at the direction of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (Likud) with the approval of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Notably, that same day Netanyahu was hosting U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. That dismantling took place in defiance of an order from Bezalel Smotrich, acting in his capacity as a key official in the Defense Ministry with vast powers over the Civil Administration specifically over civilian matters such as illegal construction (in addition to his role as Finance Minister). Smotrich’s order, which was overruled by Gallant, sought to leave the outpost untouched while the situation was debated by government officials.

In response to the outpost being dismantled not once but twice (hundreds of settlers reestablished the outpost within 2 days of the first demolition), Smotrich and his allies boycotted the weekly Cabinet meeting, forcing Netanyahu to convene at least two separate meetings (on January 23 and 24) to resolve the clash between Gallant and Smotrich. 

With the visit of a top U.S. official over, reports on January 26th suggest that Netanyahu is now siding with Smotrich. In so doing, Netanyu is confirming his support for a new status quo in the Defense Ministry in which authority in the West Bank is divided between Smotrich and Gallant. Smotrich will be in charge of “civilian” matters — including the fate of illegal outposts, issues related to settlements, and, of course, all aspects of the lives of Palestinians; Gallant’s authority in the West Bank will be over “security” matters. Minister Gallant has made it clear that he opposes this new division of authority within his ministry, and Defense Ministry legal advisors have cautioned Netanyahu that transferring powers to Smotrich could be seen by the international community as annexation. In response, Netanyahu has ordered a legal opinion on the proposed division.

Smotrich has been clear regarding his intention to use the powers he appears to now enjoy within the Defense Ministry to reduce Israeli enforcement against illegal settler construction, and to increase Israeli enforcement against “illegal” Palestinian construction [as a reminder: Israel only rarely gives Palestinians permission to build on their own private land in Area C, meaning that in the eyes of Israeli authorities, virtually all Palestinian construction in Area C is illegal and can/should be demolished]. 

In addition to laying bare a fight over authority in the new government, the battle over this whole ordeal also re-affirmed the consensus – and enthusiasm – in Israel’s ruling class, both those in and those in opposition – in support of demolishing Palestinian construction in Area C. Indeed, in a revealing Twitter exchange, Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Benny Gantz literally fought for credit for demolishing the more Palestinian structures.

With Top U.S. Official In Country, Netanyahu Delays New Settlement Plan

On January 19th – while U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was in Israel for talks with Netanyahu – the Israeli government removed an item from its weekly agenda consideration of the approval of a new settlement on the periphery of Jerusalem. The new settlement is to be created by splitting off an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of the Kochav Yaakov settlement, and turning it into its own settlement, to be called “Tel Zion.” The creation of the “Tel Zion” settlement is part of Netanyahu’s coalition deal with the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. The Times of Israel suggests the plan – which in addition to being agreed to by Netanyahu is also supported by Defense Minister Gantz  – was removed from last week’s agenda apparently to avoid friction with the U.S., meaning that with Sullivan gone, the plan is likely to be brought forward for approval imminently.

Coalition Deal Includes Unilateral Annexation of West Bank Archaeological Sites

Emek Shaveh reports new details on the coalition deal between the Likud and Jewish Power parties, including the allocation of over $40 million (NIS 150 million) to fund a “National Emergency Plan” under which Israel must take control of heritage sites across the totality of the West Bank, without regard to the Oslo-defined Areas A, B, and C. 

Settler groups, including the “Guardians of the Eternity” and the “Shiloh Forum”, have been pushing the government to proceed with taking control of heritage sites, which the groups claim are being vandalized and destroyed by Palestinians.

Emek Shaveh said in a statement

“Netanyahu’s government, with the aid of the Shiloh Forum (and Kohelet), continues to confuse science with messianism, heritage with rightful ownership, and cultural affinity with ethnic supremacy. The destruction of sites, whether genuine or imagined, must not be used as rationale for political action, and political action must not be disguised as heritage conservation. We will make clear that blurring the boundaries between research and protection (of sites) and settlement and annexation, constitutes a gross violation of the prevailing ethics in the field heritage and the stipulations in international law regarding cultural property in occupied territories. Such violations not only endanger the future of heritage sites, but also expose Israel to professional and political isolation.”

As FMEP has chronicled, settlers and their allies are intent upon using claims of Palestinian damage/neglect as a pretext for Israel taking control of archaeological sites and artifacts across the West Bank. For example, in February 2021 settlers used a construction mishap to raise claims to the Mt. Ebal site

And as a reminder: in January 2021, the Israeli government 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 (and transparently self-evident) objectives behind this effort are: to support yet another pretext to surveil and police Palestinians; to establish and exploit yet another means to dispossess Palestinians of their properties; to expand/deepen Israeli control across the West Bank; and to further entrench Israeli technical, bureaucratic and legal paradigms that treat the West Bank as sovereign Israeli territory. It is the result of a campaign that has taken place over the past year in which settlers have escalated their calls for the Israeli government to seize antiquities and “heritage sites” located in Palestinian communities across the West Bank, especially in Area C, which Israel today treats as functionally (and legally) indistinguishable from sovereign Israeli territory. Funding committed by Israel for West Bank “heritage sites” should be understood in this context.

Previous victories for the settlers in this same arena include the Israeli Civil Administration’s issuance in 2020 of expropriation orders – the first of their kind in 35 years – for two archaeological sites located on privately owned Palestinian property northwest of Ramallah. 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. 

In June 2020, the “Guardians of Eternity” group began surveying areas in the West Bank that Israel has designated as archaeological sites, looking for Palestinian construction (barred by Israel in such areas) that they could then use as a pretext to demand that Israeli authorities demolish it. 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. 

And one more reminder: in 2017, Israel designated 1,000 new archaeological sites in Area C of the West Bank. The “Guardians of Eternity” 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).

Concern Grows that New Gov Will Proceed with Mount of Olives “Park” Plan

+972 Magazine reports that activists and experts are increasingly concerned that the new Israeli government will resurrect a plan to declare vast areas of East Jerusalem – including prized religious sites on the Mount of Olives and entire Palestinian neighborhoods – as part of an Israeli national park, with huge consequences for churches and Palestinians. Activists fear that, in addition to the immediate consequences for residents and property owners, the government intends to subcontract management of the new national park to the radical settler group Elad. This is precisely what the government of Israel did with so-called City of David National Park, which, under Elad’s stewardship, has had devastating impacts on Silwan residents.

Sari Kronish, and urban planning expert with the NGO Bimkom explained:

“Of course a national park is not a bad thing in principle, but in East Jerusalem the designation is used as a tool to prevent development of Palestinian neighborhoods”

The plan to create the Mount of Olives National Park was first revealed in February 2022, but postponed by the government at the time, with a promise that the plan will not proceed until the Churches with equities in the area have been consulted. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority told +972 Magazine that these consultations have begun but are not complete. The agenda item has not been totally shelved, but instead repeatedly delayed, landing the item on the August 2023 agenda (barring further delay).

Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann told +972:

“There is no innocent interpretation as to why to put a national park [on the Mount of Olives], except for the fact that the settlers in general, and the settler movement Elad in particular, covet the properties and areas in the visual basin around the Old City. This all comes within a context … [of] an attempt by the government of Israel, together with the settlement movement … to create an Israeli land bridge from the [state-protected] ‘green area’ on Mt. Scopus through Sheikh Jarrah, with biblically-motivated settlements and settlement activities.  We have already seen that on the north flanks with the encirclement of the Sheikh Jarrah area.”

Palestinians Protest Settler Cultivating Land Near Ramallah

Haaretz reports that a settler from the Ofra settlement has recently begun illegally cultivating a large plot of land (130 dunams/32 acres) near Ramallah, on the West Bank side of the Israeli separation barrier. In a statement to Haaretz, the Civil Administration said that it had not permitted any activity on the land and would investigate.

The settler’s actions have sparked a significant response from the local Palestinian community because, in order to reach the land, the settler and the heavy equipment being used to work the land must travel through Palestinian villages. Palestinians have begun staging weekly protests at the site, and the village council of the Palestinian village of Qalandiya issued a warning that it would report the names of Palestinians found working at the site to the Palestinian Authority. 

The plot of land in question is land that pre-1948 had a Jewish owner. It was taken over by the Israeli government in 1967; the Israeli government gave it to the World Zionist Organization in 1997; the WZO then gave it to the Ofra settlement, which never used or cultivated the land, but in 2019 purportedly gave the land to one of its residents, Assaf Shapira. Notwithstanding that action by the settlement, in July  2022 the Civil Administration notified Ofra that the allocation of the land to the settlement had been canceled. 

Dror Etkes – the founder of the settlement watchdog group Kerem Navot – told Haaretz: 

“Ofra’s settlers waited four decades before taking control of these lands. The timing isn’t a coincidence and reflects the spirit of the sixth Netanyahu government. It’s an apartheid government that will continue to act in full force in this enterprise which seeks to make the West Bank and its residents work for the benefit of a violent minority of settlers.”

Bonus Reads

  1. “Israel’s Knesset Extends West Bank Emergency Orders by Another Five Years” (Haaretz)