Welcome to FMEP’s Weekly Settlement & Annexation Report. To subscribe to this report, please click here.
March 4, 2021
- ICC Opens Investigation Into Palestine
- JNF Board Approves $11.5 Million for Settlement Expansion
- Report: Netanyahu Offered Construction of Atarot Settlement in Return for Votes
- In Hebron, Economic “Coexistence” Group Reportedly Working on Plan for New Hospital
- Bonus Reads
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On March 3, 2021, International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda formally opened an investigation into the “Situation in Palestine,” an investigation which is expected to look at war crimes committed by Israelis involved in the settlement enterprise (as well as other alleged war crimes committed by both Israelis and Palestinians). Notably, Bensouda is leaving her post in June 2021; her replacement, U.K. prosecutor Karim Khan, will have the ability to end the investigation if he so chooses (which Israel hopes is a real possibility).
Bensouda’s move to open an investigation comes after almost five years of considering doing so. Over that time, Bensouda oversaw a lengthy pre-investigation inquiry (Bensouda announced in December 2019 that this inquiry had found grounds to open an investigation), and a special pre-trial chamber ruling, issued on February 5, 2021, that affirmed the ICC’s jurisdiction over crimes committed in Palestine.
According to Haaretz, the ICC is expected to send formal notification of its decision to open an investigation to the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel and the PA then have a 30-day window within which to tell the Court if they intend to investigate the alleged criminal activities within their own judicial systems. If they inform the Court that they will do so, Bensouda will need approval from the Court to proceed with the ICC’s investigation. It’s unclear how much of this can be expected to happen prior to Bensouda’s departure from the Court in June.
Assuming the investigation does go forward, it is expected to take years to complete, and will reportedly look at bringing charges against both Israeli and Palestinian individuals involved in the commission of crimes — including the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression — in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, going back to 2014 up to the present day. This could include the prosecution of Israeli officials involved in establishing settlements in the occupied territory – which is illegal under international law.
For a rich discussion of this case and the complexities involved in it, watch this recent FMEP webinar, ”Israel-Palestine at the International Criminal Court: What Next?”
In response to the ICC’s announcement, the U.S. Department of State issued a statement saying the Biden Administration “firmly opposes and is deeply disappointed by this decision.”
Reiterating his prior assertion that the ICC investigation is antisemitic, Prime Minister Netanyahu said in a video message: “The decision of the International Court to open an investigation against Israel today for war crimes is absurd. It’s undiluted antisemitism and the height of hypocrisy.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh called the ICC’s decision a “victory for justice and humanity, for the values of truth, fairness and freedom, and for the blood of the victims and their families.”
A coalition of Palestinian civil society groups – Al-Haq, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, the Palestinian Centre for Human Right and Al Dameer – said in a statement:
“This investigation represents a critically important step towards ending impunity and upholding the international rule of law, while ensuring the dignity of the Palestinian people who continue to be denied their right to self-determination and who are subjected to a criminal regime of apartheid, forced displacement, population transfer, extensive destruction and appropriation of property, pillage, wilful killings, and persecution, amongst other crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court. Investigating war crimes related to the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as Israel’s subjection of Palestinian civilians in Gaza to the inhumane closure and brutal military offensives, and apartheid as a crime against humanity, will require the Court to engage both with the conduct of individual soldiers and military commanders, and the entire military and civilian hierarchies embedded in and advancing the Israeli occupation.”
Immediately following the March 23rd elections in Israel, the Jewish National Fund will hold a vote on whether to adopt a new policy explicitly supporting the purchase of West Bank land for the purpose of settlement expansion. Despite that vote not yet having been taken, on February 25th, the Israeli Board of the Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL) voted to allocate $11.5 million (38 million shekels) towards the purchase of land in the West Bank in order to expand settlements. The Jerusalem Post reports that proponents of the new policy might have used the funding vote to “strong arm” the organization into moving forward with the policy prior to a final vote.
A group of JNF Board members who oppose the new policy has filed a petition demanding that the February 25th funding allocation vote be annulled, citing alleged malpractice by the Board Chairman. The petition says that the Chair, Avi Duvdevani, “muted certain members on the Zoom meeting and prevented others from answering questions before rushing the vote” and deliberately withheld legal opinions critical of the new policy.
The day prior to the vote on funding allocation, Israeli attorney Shachar Ben-Meir sent a legal analysis of the proposed policy to the JNF Board. In it, Ben-Meir argued that the JNF would need approval from the Israeli Justice Minister (currently Benny Gantz) in order to make a necessary amendment to the organization’s founding agreements to allow for activity in the West Bank.
Pushing in the other direction, Israeli MK Bezalel Smotrich wrote to the JNF Board Chairman to demand that the new policy avoid limiting the JNF’s settlement dealings to Area C, arguing that the JNF ought to be buying land throughout the West Bank, especially in Hebron.
Notwithstanding the significant controversy the JNF’s potential explicit embrace of settlements has provoked, the reality is that the JNF has long worked in support of settlements. What is different now is that, where in the past the JNF preferred to leave its settlement-related activities deliberately obscured, under the new policy the JNF would openly claim and promote its support for settlements. As such, the shift under consideration is not so much in policy as in public relations (a public relations approach that does not shy away from blatant racism, evidenced by the JNF Chairman’s recent TV appearance in which he said that the JNF’s goal is to stop land from ending up in Arab hands).
In early January 2021, Netanyahu allegedly attempted to secure a merger of parties to his right by offering to advance the construction of the Atarot settlement – a planned settlement to be located just north of Jerusalem on the site of the former Qalandiya airport – which has been designated for ultra-Orthodox housing. According to reporting, the deal was not agreed to, though that does not mean Netanyahu will not advance the plan (in December 2020 the plan for the Atarot settlement was reportedly ready to be scheduled for discussion, an early phase in the planning process).
According to Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann of Terrestrial Jerusalem, the plan faces significant legal obstacles and he predicts that the plan will not come to fruition “anytime soon.” It’s worth noting, Israel is well underway with other settlement projects in the area, most notably construction of a new bypass tunnel road that will go underneath the Qalandiya checkpoint which is immediately adjacent to the area where the Atarot settlement is planned for.
The Atarot settlement plan dates back to 2007; it was pursued by the Israeli government in 2012 but shelved under pressure from the Obama administration. The plan came back into consideration in April 2017 (a few months following the inauguration of President Trump) when it was rumored to be included on Netanyahu’s master blueprint of settlements for which he was seeking U.S. approval. In February 2020, following the publication of the Trump Plan – which designated the area that would be used for the settlement as a “special tourist zone” for Palestinians – the Atarot settlement plan was formally introduced.
In its current form, the plan provides for up to 9,000 residential units for ultra-Orthodox Jews (assuming, conservatively, an average family size of 6, this means housing for 54,000 people), as well as synagogues, ritual baths (mikvehs), commercial properties, offices and work spaces, a hotel, and a water reservoir. If built, the Atarot settlement will effectively be an Israeli enclave surrounded by Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods on three sides and Ramallah to its north.
There are currently 15 Palestinian families living in buildings on the land slated for the settlement, part of which is privately owned by Palestinians. Other land in the area has been declared “state land” by Israel or belongs to the Jewish National Fund. To solve the problem of Palestinian land owners, the Israeli government will need to evict the Palestinians living there and demolish their homes — a step that will be facilitated by the fact that all of the homes lack Israeli-issued building permits (which are essentially impossible for Palestinians to receive). The private Palestinian landowners will then be subjected to a non-consensual process of reparcelization, in which Israel will unilaterally reparcel and then redistribute the land amongst its owners on the basis of the value of the land (as determined by Israel) and the percentage of their ownership claim.
The Atarot airport site is an important commodity and, during past negotiations, it was previously promised to the Palestinians for their state’s future international gateway. Israeli development of the site as a settlement would — by design — not only deprive a future Palestinian state of the only airport in the West Bank, but also dismember Palestinian neighborhoods in the northern part of the city, and sever East Jerusalem from a Palestinian state on this northern flank of the city (acting like E-1 on Jerusalem’s northeast flank, and like Givat Hamatos on Jerusalem’s southern flank).
According to a glowing profile and interview in the Jewish News Syndicate, a right-wing media outlet, Palestinian businessman Ashraf Jabari is in talks with the settler leaders in Hebron to open a new hospital as a joint project. The new JNS interview provides fascinating insights into Jabari’s acceptance of Israeli settlements and settlers as a permanent feature in the West Bank, and into his dismissal of the prevailing formulation of a two-state solution. Jabari even suggests that Palestinians would prefer to live under full Israeli control, for economic reasons.
As a reminder, Jabari has long been the darling of settlers and Greater Israel advocates. He publicly welcomed and participated in Trump’s “Deal of the Century” (he was the only Palestinian on-stage at the “Peace to Prosperity’ summit convened by the Trump Administration in June 2019) and has been actively working with settlers to establish “joint” economic initiatives in the West Bank through a group called the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce (JSCC). For his role in the JSCC and his close ties to the Trump Administration, Jabari has been slammed as a traitor by the Palestinian Authority, shunned as a pariah by his fellow Palestinian business people, and disowned by his family.
As FMEP has repeatedly explained, economic “coexistence” initiatives like the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce (JSCC) seek to normalize, entrench, and reward Israeli settlements while perpetuating Israel’s economic exploitation of occupied territory (including the local workforce, land, and other natural resources). Congressional support for such initiatives could mean U.S. taxpayer dollars going directly (and publicly) to the settlements.
- “Can Silwan’s rekindled protests beat back Israel’s eviction threats?” (+972 Magazine)
- “The road to nowhere: Israel tarmacs over peace with the Palestinians” (The Prospect // Donald Macintyre)
- “Not Just a Few Bad Apples, Violent Settlement Outposts Pose a Danger to Israel” (Haaretz)
- “Jewish Groups Call to Reverse Trump Policy of Labeling Settlement Products ‘Made in Israel’” (J Street)
- “Israel Is Recreating the Nakba, Without Putting Palestinians on Trucks” (Haaretz)
- “Trump’s $3 billion Abraham Fund may be tapped out before staking a dime” (The Times of Israel
- “Al-Haq Field Report on Human Rights Violations in 2020” (Al-Haq)
- “Judge, Jury, & Occupier” (War on Want)