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January 8, 2021
- Court Greenlights (Again) Settler Campaign for Mass Eviction of Palestinians from Silwan
- East Jerusalem Palestinians Petition High Court Against Implementation of Absentee Property Law
- Ir Amim Files Petition Against Ateret Cohanim, Citing Misconduct in Silwan
- Israeli Government Invests Millions to Escalate Settler Policing of West Bank Antiquities
- Regavim Launches Legal Petition to Overturn Jordanian Law Preventing Settlers from Directly Purchasing West Bank Land
- IDF Increases Presence in West Bank As Violence Continues to Escalate
- Greek Orthodox Church Rumored to Be Selling Bethlehem-Area Property to Settlers
- Straight from the Source: Regavim Explains Settler Agenda & 2020 Victories
- Bonus Reads
by Kristin McCarthy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
On December 23, 2020 the Jerusalem Magistrate Court ruled in favor of the settler group Ateret Cohanim’s right to evict 22 Palestinians (two families) from their longtime home in the Batan al-Hawa section of the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem. This case is part of a large scale campaign by Ateret Cohanim to take control over more properties in Silwan – a campaign which threatens the eviction of about 700 Palestinians. The Court once again upheld Ateret Cohanim’s ownership of those properties via its control of an ancient land trust, which the settlers recently revived in order to enable its eviction effort.
Israeli NGO Ir Amim, which focuses on Jerusalem-related matters, writes:
“It is critical to underscore that the cases in question cannot be characterized as isolated and individual disputes over land ownership between supposed landowners and residents that should be left to play out in the Israeli courts. Rather, there is a systematic campaign, driven by political and ideological objectives, being waged against the Palestinian population, with the end goal of forcibly transferring entire Palestinian communities. These evictions are being advanced by well-funded settler groups who are aided and abetted on all levels of the state and enjoy the complicity of the Israeli courts, which carry far-reaching implications on the future of Jerusalem.”
The most recent ruling builds on the Court’s issuance of eviction notices in early December 2020 and two significant court rulings in late November 2020. In both cases, Israeli courts sided with the Israeli settler group Ateret Cohanim, further consolidating the growing Israeli case law recognizing Ateret Cohanim as the legal owner of a significant amount of land in Silwan (and the buildings on it), entitling the group to pursue the eviction of as many as 700 Palestinians who in many cases have lived on that land for generations. If executed, this would be the largest displacement of Palestinians from East Jerusalem since 1967.
As a reminder, Ateret Cohanim has waged a years-long eviction campaign against Palestinians living in Silwan, on property the settler NGO claims to own. This claim is based on Ateret Cohanim having gained control of the historic Benvenisti Trust, which oversaw the assets of Yemenite Jews who lived in Silwan in the 19th century. Palestinians have challenged the legitimacy of the Benvenisti Trust’s claims to the currently existing buildings, saying that the trust only covered the old buildings (none of which remain standing) and not the land. Israeli Courts have continued to rule in support of Ateret Cohanim’s claims and against Paelstinians who have been living there for decades. Taking a different approach, in June 2020 Palestinians filed a new petition challenging the legality of the functional operations of the Trust/Ateret Cohanim, asserting that Ateret Cohanim is using the Benvenisti Trust as nothing more than an (illegal) front for displacing Palestinians, pointing out that the trust does not have a separate organizational structure, bank account, lawyer, or accountant – and that Ateret Cohanim has folded the operations of the trust into its own operations and there is no distinction between the management or assets of the two entities.
On December 27, 2020, the Israeli NGO Ir Amim and the Sheikh Jarrah Community Association jointly filed a petition with the Israeli High Court seeking to force the Israeli Custodian General to implement the Absentee Property Law in a more transparent, orderly, and ethical manner. While Ir Amim stresses that the Absentee Property Law is itself unconstitutional, due to its systematic discrimination against Palestinians and their property rights, the petition does not seek to overturn the law. Rather, it seeks only to compel the General Custodian to publish formal procedures and regulations concerning property management in East Jerusalem, and urges that those rules take into account the rights of Palestinian tenants.
As a reminder, Israel’s Absentee Property Law affords Jews the right to reclaim property they owned in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the period before Israel became a state in 1948, and that they were forced to abandon as a result of the 1948 War. Israel’s law affords no such right to Palestinians who as the result of that same war were likewise forced to abandon property inside what became the State of Israel. After the war, Israel designated such properties “absentee properties” control over which was transferred wholesale to the Israeli state. Israel’s “Custodian General”- the division of the Israeli Justice Ministry which manages properties declared “absentee” under Israel’s Absentee Property Law – has a documented history of working directly with East Jerusalem settler groups and systematically transferring ownership of absentee properties in East Jerusalem to settlers and settler organizations, sometimes without any public disclosure to the Palestinians presently living in those properties. Use of the Absentee Property Law by settlers organizations with the willing participation of the Israeli government is the legal mechanism behind past, present, and future evictions of Palestinains from the most sensitive areas of East Jerusalem (like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan) where Palestinians are facing mass eviction.
Ir Amim writes:
“For decades, ideological settler organizations have exploited these legal mechanisms and the support they enjoy from state bodies like the General Custodian to advance evictions of Palestinians and takeovers of their homes as a means to establish settler strongholds in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods. The opening clauses of the petition underscore the unconstitutionality and systemic discrimination created under the auspices of the law through affording Jews the right to retrieve lost pre-1948 properties in East Jerusalem, while no parallel legal mechanism exists for Palestinians who lost assets in West Jerusalem. Instead, the 1950 Absentee Property Law enshrines that properties of Palestinians who were forced to abandon their homes due to the war are deemed absentee and therefore transferred into the possession of the state with no legal recourse to recover them. Although the petition stresses the implicit discrimination in the law, the petition itself does not address its unconstitutionality, but rather the General Custodian’s obligation to operate in a transparent, fair, and ethical manner within the existing framework…The aim of the petition is to therefore challenge, within the existing legal framework, the severe misconduct of the General Custodian in its complicity with settler-initiated eviction lawsuits and to ultimately facilitate the freeze of these eviction proceedings.”
Further reading on the Absentee Property Law and East Jerusalem: Why we need to speak about the Absentee Property Law (Times of Israel, July 5, 2020); Absentees against Their Will – Property Expropriation in East Jerusalem under the Absentee Property Law (Ir Amin, July 2020); Annex and Dispossess: Use of the Absentees’ Property Law to Dispossess Palestinians of their Property in East Jerusalem (Peace Now, July 7, 2020); This isn’t Israel’s first ‘land theft law,’ it won’t be the last (+972 Magazine, Feb. 8, 2019), The Absentee Property Law and itsImplementation in East Jerusalem – A Legal Guide and Analysis (Norwegian Refugee Council, May 2013)
On December 17, 2020 Ir Amim filed a petition with an Israeli court challenging the issuance of a tender for the construction of a settler-backed “Yemenite cultural center” slated to be built in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem (i.e., a settlement project cloaked in the guise of a touristic/heritage site). The petition argues that the involvement of the Ateret Cohanim settler organization in the project violates conflict of interest laws and that, ultimately, the project (which is a government project) is using public funds to advance the settlers’ agenda.
Ir Amim explains:
“While the project for the Yemenite Jewish visitor center was officially launched and funded by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs, it is being carried out in close collaboration with the Benvenisti Trust and Ateret Cohanim with the joint purpose, among other things, of encouraging further Jewish settlement in Batan al-Hawa, an area once home to Yemenite Jews prior to 1948.”
Specifically, the petition argues that the East Jerusalem Development Company acted improperly in awarding a tender for the construction of the settlement project because it relied on (or allowed) Ateret Cohanim to drum up interest and provide tours for companies considering bidding for the tender. Further, a senior member of Ateret Cohanim is married to a member of the Board of Directors of the East Jerusalem Development Company.
Though the petition asked the Court to urgently freeze the tender, the Court ruled the same day (December 17th) against the petition. However, in its ruling against Ir Amim’s request, the Court asked the State to respond to Ir Amim’s claims by January 11, 2021.
Emek Shaveh reports that on January 4th, the Israeli Minister of Jerusalem and Heritage Rafi Peretz (who is on his way out of politics) transferred $7.5 million (NIS 24 million) to West Bank settler municipalities specifically “to add supervisors to the team of the Staff Officer for Archaeology, to improve the Civil Administration’s mechanisms for surveillance of the Palestinian population and for the preservation of archaeological sites located in strategic areas adjacent to Palestinian villages or on private Palestinian land.”
While the objective of protecting antiquities might appear uncontroversial and apolitical, the true objective behind this effort is to support yet another means to surveil, police, and dispossess Palestinians 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 treats today as virtually indistinguishable from sovereign Israeli territory.
Emek Shaveh responded:
“It seems that the plan that was unveiled on [January 4th] has very little to do with concern for archaeology and heritage. Antiquities ought to be preserved in partnership with the residents and not in conflict with them. After the Minister of Jerusalem and Heritage gave out tens of millions of shekels last week for strengthening the settlements in East Jerusalem, he is now allocating tens of millions of shekels to restrict Palestinian presence in Area C. It is a pity that the Israeli government, and Minister Peretz in particular, use archaeology for political purposes and do not leave the field of cultural heritage outside the conflict between the Palestinians and the settlers.”
This 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 mis-managed 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. As a reminder, in 2017, Israel declared 1,000 new archaeological sites in Area C of the West Bank. 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.
This new group is, not coincidentally, an offshoot of the radical Regavim organization, which among other things works to push Israeli authorities to demolish Palestinian construction that lacks Israeli permits (permits that Israel virtually never grants). The group’s leaders accuse the Palestinian Authority of mismanaging the sites and they accuse Palestinians of looting them, and demands 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.
Regavim Launches Legal Petition to Overturn Jordanian Law Preventing Settlers from Directly Purchasing West Bank Land
In late December 2020, the settler group Regavim filed a petition with the Israeli High Court of Justice seeking to overturn a 1953 Jordanian law that prevents land in the West Bank from being sold to any individual who is not of Arab descent. The Court gave the State 60 days to respond to Regavim’s petition.
For context – when Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967, it kept in place a variety of pre-existing laws, including a pre-1967 Jordanian law barring private land sales to non-Arabs. In September 2019, FMEP reported that the Israeli Defense Ministry and the Israeli army had reportedly drafted legal opinions in support of canceling this law in order to allow settlers to directly purchase West Bank land. Those opinions had been submitted for consideration by the Israeli Deputy Attorney General, who, according to Haaretz, was expected at that time to approve them with the backing of the Attorney General.
FMEP’s Lara Friedman weighed in to explain the background of this issue and the magnitude of the proposed change:
“In 1967, Israel established a military government apparatus to run the West Bank, that eventually became the ‘Civil Administration’ (an Orwellian name, since it is an arm of the Israeli military). Israeli military governance in the West Bank was set up, at least in principle and at the start, to operate in a manner consistent with international law. International law requires an occupying power to leave in force the existing laws in the territory it occupies, with limited leeway for that power to issue new administrative orders or laws, but only in cases of military necessity or for the benefit of the local population.
“Over the past 52 years of occupation, Israel has re-purposed this international law-based approach into a system of ‘rule by law’ (versus ‘rule of law’). Israel holds on to and enforces pre-1967 laws where those laws can be interpreted and used to serve Israeli objectives. Where those old laws obstruct or fail to sufficiently facilitate Israel’s objectives, Israel supplants them with IDF-promulgated rules, Israeli court rulings, and Israeli domestic laws (i.e., laws passed by the Knesset that apply inside sovereign Israel and are extended to the settlers – as citizens – and to matter that relate to settlers in the West Bank, in what increasingly constitutes a form of “legislative annexation.” [for more details, see Yesh Din’s excellent report, “Through the Lens of Israel’s Interests”: The Civil Administration in the West Bank].
As a result, since 1967, Palestinians in the West Bank have been governed by an ever-evolving legal system that includes: (1) pre-1967 laws (including exploitation of old Ottoman land laws as a means for Israel to declare huge areas of the West Bank to be ‘state land’); (2) international law of occupation (including exploitation of the Occupier’s right to use land for military necessity or the public good as a pretext for massive land expropriation and using land for the sole benefit of the IDF and settlers); (3) Israeli military orders (governing nearly every aspect of Palestinians’ day-to-day lives, including orders closing off access to land); (4) Israeli court rulings (like rulings that legitimize settlers taking over ‘disputed’ houses in Hebron); and (5) increasingly in recent years, Israeli laws, like the Regulation Law (passed by the Knesset and allowing Israel to transfer Palestinian private property to settlers who built on it illegally, based on the argument that the settlers were unaware that the land was privately owned by Palestinians).
Israel’s decision to leave the Jordanian-era law barring the sale of private land in the West Bank to settlers in place for the past 52 years should be understood as an Israeli government decision, reflecting Israel’s own calculation of what policy served its interests. Why would Israel want to limit the ability for settlers to buy West Bank land? For a number of reasons:
(a) security: wherever settlers move in the West Bank, their presence has the potential (even likelihood) of sparking violence and conflict that would compel an IDF response. Even absent such conflict, wherever there are settlers, the IDF is required to invest enormous resources in protecting them (including manpower, physical infrastructure). In short, if settlers can purchase land wherever they want, they can, in effect, hijack the IDF, at great expense to Israeli taxpayers and regardless of security considerations.
(b) international relations: settler activity in the West Bank has for most of the past 52 years been closely watched and sharply criticized by the international community, and especially the United States; so long as Israel maintained an official policy of being the sole authority that could permit the establishment of new settlements, it could limit (to some degree) wildcat settler activity and, where such activity did take place, it could disavow responsibility. Notably, in the earliest days of the settlement movement of the early 1970s, settlers did find a limited method of circumventing the Jordanian law (by purchasing property via front companies – a practice that continues to this day); while it is telling that the Israeli government did not at the time intervene to close this loophole in the law, it is equally tellingly that it did not dare use that loophole as pretext for annulling the law.
(c) diplomacy/peace process: unrestrained settler activity across the entire West Bank, undertaken at will and with an official green light from the Israeli government, contradicts even the thinnest pretense that Israel is not engaged in annexation — and annexation not just of settlement blocs, or Area C, or the Jordan Valley, but of the entire West Bank.
Today, all of these calculations appear to have changed. Israeli military and Defense Ministry advisers are reportedly advocating for Israel to change the law. To this end, they have come up with multiple legal arguments designed to forestall international criticism by arguing that such a change is, in fact, entirely consistent with international law. For example, they suggest playing cynical games with the requirement under international law that laws made by the occupying power be for the benefit of the local population. One idea is to argue that settlers are the “local population” and that Israel thus has an obligation under to adopt laws that are to their benefit (as FMEP has previously explained, in 2016 Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran opened the door to including settlers in Israel’s understanding of what constitutes the “local population” of the West Bank). Another idea is to argue that allowing settlers to buy West Bank land would provide an economic benefit to Palestinians. And a third is to argue that Israel has the right as the occupier, under international law, to annul the Jordanian law simply on the basis that Israel views it as racist and discriminatory laws — and citing the actions of the United States in Iraq as a precedent.
In sum, after 52 years of using every legal strategy available to ignore the protection afforded to Palestinians and their land under international law, today Israel is resuscitating the idea of international law in the West Bank — but only as a pretext for a new policy that, if implemented, should put an end to any debate over whether there is any real difference, in practice, between Israeli policies of de facto annexation, and an Israeli policy of official annexation. Israeli authorities and political leaders from across most of the political spectrum no longer even feign commitment to negotiating the future of the land and talk openly of annexation; and it appears that Israeli concerns that settler actions will hijack the IDF are outweighed by the desire to take concrete steps that demonstrate that — even without a formal statement of annexation — Israel has shifted to openly treating the entire West Bank as part of Israel.”
A Palestinian Christian group, the Orthodox Central Council in Palestine (OCCP), has accused the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem of planning to sell 27 acres of church-owned lands near Bethlehem to two Israeli development companies dedicated to settlement growth (“Talpiot Hadasha” and “Broeket Habsaga”). The sale will reportedly bring $39 million to the Patriarchate, while the land will be used by the Israeli companies to more seamlessly connect settlements in the area to Jerusalem.
OCCP spokesman Jalal Barham told Middle East Eye:
“This is a new deal, dating from last September, [that] aims to complete an Israeli settlement belt, extending from the Gilo settlement near the Palestinian town of Beit Jala, all the way to Talpiot in Jerusalem.”
Barham further reports that his group has faced backlash for the accusations, and the Palestinian Authority body responsible for church relations has thrown doubt onto the documents and accusation OCCP has led.
Following the deaths of two Israeli settlers in the West Ban at the end of December 2020 – the alleged murder of a settler by a Palestinian and the death of a young settler in a car crash while fleeing Israeli police after allegedly stoning Palestinian cars – the Israeli IDF increased its presence in the occupied West Bank.
Prior to and after these incidents, settler violence against Palestinians and their property has continued to escalate — including a steep increase in attacks to “avenge” the death of the settler youth whose death settlers blame on Israeli police , but whose wrath is being focused equally if not more on Palestinians. However, the Israeli military made it explicitly clear that the increased IDF presence was to protect the settlements and roads, not Palestinians.
The matter of settler violence towards Palestinian was highlighted by two recent reports. In its year-end review, B’Tselem reports:
“[in 2020] B’Tselem’s field researchers documented 248 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, including: 86 bodily assaults, in which 75 Palestinians were injured; 27 cases of stone-throwing at homes; 17 attacks on moving vehicles; 147 of the attacks were aimed at Palestinian farmers or their property, including 80 cases of damage to trees and crops owned by Palestinians, resulting in more than 3,000 trees vandalized. In 39 cases, the violent acts took place in the olive harvest season, which lasted this year from early October through late November.
Of these incidents, 72 took place in the presence of soldiers, police officers or DCO personnel, who did not intervene to stop the assault on the Palestinians or their property. In 28 cases, soldiers dispersed the Palestinian residents by firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated metal bullets, and in at least five cases, even live fire. Israeli authorities arrested at least 12 Palestinians during these altercations.
These violent acts could not take place without the sweeping support provided by the state. While security forces back the perpetrators in real time, the law enforcement system releases them from accountability: in almost all cases, no investigation is launched, and no one is held accountable for causing harm to Palestinians. The rare investigations that are launched usually end with no further measures taken. In the even rarer instance of an indictment – the charges fall far short of reflecting the gravity of the acts, and the sentences are ludicrous.”
Additionally, Al-Haq published a new report specifically looking at the Yitzhar settlement and its outposts as well known locusts of violence. Al-Haq documents several cases which exemplify the type of routine violence Yitzhar settlers inflict, writing in the report’s introduction:
“Following the continuous documentation by Al-Haq of settler violence, this Special Focus [Report] presents selected cases from July to October 2020, indicating the severity of violent attacks by the Yitzhar settlers and the gravity of the damage inflicted on Palestinian rights and livelihoods. The following cases further exemplify Israel’s institutionalised and systematic impunity, showcasing not only how the IOF stand by passively as Palestinians are targeted and attacked by Israeli settlers, but also how they further resort to using force against the targeted Palestinians”
In a year-end email, Regavim (the largest and most influential settler group) boasted of its achievements in 2020 (with blurbs linked to longer posts categorized as “End 2020” on its website). Regavim’s message/posts provide a proud, defiant and, indeed, gloating settlers’ perspective on many of the developments on the ground and campaigns to influence Israeli policy that FMEP’s weekly settlement report tracked in 2020. Likewise, they make explicit how settler actions and campaigns are key to their drive to have Israel formally annex West Bank land, and the degree to which the Israeli government is complicit in implementing Regavim’s agenda.
Notably, Regavim recounted its successes in the two key areas:
- Restarting the government’s land registration process in the West Bank, as a means of allowing settlements to take more land. Regavim explained:
“After the liberation of Judea and Samaria in 1967, the IDF suspended the process of land registration and regulation that had been initiated by the Jordanians and continued by the British mandatory government. As a stop-gap replacement for this process, the IDF instituted a system of “declaration of ownership” for state land. The fact that only one-third of territory of Judea and Samaria had been fully registered at the time this new policy was implemented has created severe constraints for the development of Jewish communities and has enabled Arab land-grabs on a massive scale.
In 2020, Regavim focused on this problem through media and public awareness campaigns and intensive lobbying efforts. Our objective is to generate a much broader understanding that the only way to preserve vital national interests, promote Israeli jurisdiction, and protect individual rights of ownership in these areas is through the renewal of the land regulation and registration process by the State. We are happy to report that as a result of our efforts, both the defense establishment and the Civil Administration published opinion papers that reflect and reinforce our position, and we believe that this breakthrough represents a significant step toward the application of Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. Currently, we are working at the parliamentary level to promote a government decision renewing the regulation and registration process.”
- Increasing the government’s demolition of Palestinian structures in Area C. Regavim boasted of creating new networks of settlers tasked with policing and investigating the status of Palestinian construction, and then reporting it to the government. Based on this network’s findings, Regavim submitted 15 legal petitions seeking the demolition of Palestinian structures in Area C. As Regavim writes in another report:
“This intensive activity resulted in vastly increased enforcement, measured in hundreds of percent: Each month, engineering and excavation machinery was impounded in dozens of cases, and illegal activities were halted in dozens more. On a parallel track, we convened follow-up hearings in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and in the Knesset plenum. We also established a forum of municipal land-protection coordinators in order to facilitate greater cooperation and formulation of shared operational objectives and procedures, and provided professional training in GIS software, a key tool for field observation and monitoring. In recent months, the Ministry of Settlement Affairs, headed by Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, began to take an active role, which we hope will bolster our efforts to win the battle for Area C. Because the State of Israel’s official response to this serious threat is still desperately insufficient in terms of resource and manpower allocation, Regavim’s activities, which combine an effective presence on the ground with relentless political pressure, continue to attempt to raise awareness and fill the void.”
For more from Regavim, follow the group’s Facebook page and newsletter. Regavim is very public about its agenda and efforts.
- “Settlers launch hunger strike, call on Netanyahu to legalize West Bank outposts” (Al-Monitor)
- “US policy of labeling West Bank products as ‘Made in Israel’ takes effect” (JNS)
- “Settlers Control the Drones. The Israeli Army Then Pulls the Trigger” (Haaretz)
- “Israeli settlement hits Palestinian dreams and memories of Jerusalem airport” (Middle East Eye)
- “Netanyahu planning to legalize Bedouin settlements in Negev” (Arutz Sheva)
- “In east Jerusalem, a battle over ‘every inch’ of land” (France 24)
- “Silence in the Face of Demolition and Pogroms” (Zehava Golan // Haaretz)
- “Israel’s demographic battle for Jerusalem leaves Palestinians struggling to survive” (The New Arab)
- “Guess Who is in Charge of the Settlements” (Haaretz)