Welcome to FMEP’s Weekly Settlement & Annexation Report. To subscribe to this report, please click here.
September 11, 2020
- Gantz Pushes for Quick Approval of 5,000 New Settlement Units
- Givat Hamatos Tender Postponed (Again), But Government Says Construction is Imminent
- One More Step Towards Mass Eviction, Jerusalem Court Orders Eviction of Additional Four Families in Silwan in Favor of Radical Settler Group
- Jerusalem Committee Delays Decision on the Cable Car Project, & Defers Decision on Silwan Land Expropriation to the High Court
- Handing Another Victory to New Settler Strategy, Civil Admin Issues Expropriation Orders for West Bank Antiquities Sites
- State Attempting to Circumvent High Court Order Against Mitzpe Kramim Outpost
- Israeli Using Normalization as a “Cover” to Change Status Quo on Temple Mount
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On September 7th, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Defense Minister Benny Gantz is seeking approval from Prime Minister Netanyahu to advance 5,000 new settlement units, to be located in settlements across the West Bank. Gantz is said to have sent a letter to Netanyahu calling on him to end what Gantz called a “de facto freeze” on settlement construction by granting permission to immediately convene the High Planning Council in order to grant approval for the settlement plans. The High Planning Council – the body within the Israeli Civil Administration (which itself is a body within the Defense Ministry) responsible for regulating all planning and construction in the West Bank – has advanced plans for a total of 4,385 settler units so far this year in two meetings, but has not been convened since late February 2020.
Channel 12 and the Jerusalem Post report that of the 5,000 units under discussion, 2,000 are ready for final approval and 3,000 are ready to be deposited for public review (a late stage in the planning process). The units are slated to be built in settlements including Beit El, Shiloh, Nokdim, Har Bracha and even some far flung settlements located in the south Hebron hills.
Gantz’s maneuver has served to intensify the discontent and impatience with Netanyahu amongst the settler leadership, which has criticized Netanyahu both for suspending annexation plans and for freezing settlement construction projects.
A Knesset grouping called the “Israel Land Caucus” — which reportedly intends to file a bill in the Knesset mandating a regular schedule of High Planning Council meetings — convened an emergency meeting following the reports of Gantz’s letter. At the meeting, the co-chair of the caucus, Bezalel Smotrich, said:
“I congratulate the Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister for approving all the plans and calling on the Prime Minister to convene the planning council. Hopefully the Prime Minister will not leave Gantz to the Right of him”
Smotrich’s co-chair, Likud MK Haim Katz, attempted to defend Netanyahu but also urged immediate action, saying:
“I believe the Prime Minister wants the development of settlement and therefore the Supreme Planning Council must be convened. It’s inconceivable that they don’t convene the planning council. We issued a letter to the Prime Minister, we must try and influence through convening the Lobby. I strongly believe the Prime Minister wants development of settlement and through the Lobby the tools need to be examined to prove to Netanyahu that the Council must convene. Localities are growing and there are basic needs that must be promoted.”
The head of the settler Yesha Council, David Elhayani, was less generous in his assessment of Netanyahu’s motivations, saying:
“I’m unwilling to accept an equation where we’re going to be held hostage by this or that situation. We didn’t come as thieves in the night. The Israeli governments sent us to settle the area. I can’t see how a Rightist prime minister can’t justify why the committee doesn’t convene. It’s not just residential construction, it’s also freezing a day center for people with special needs. The freeze today is not like the freeze in the days of Obama. No matter what the political reasons – the Prime Minister must be real and determined. There’s no reason for us to become 7th-class citizens. There is no difference between a resident of Karnei Shomron, Har Bracha, Eli, or Beit She’an, Beit Shemesh or somewhere else. I expect the Prime Minister to conduct himself in Hebrew and not in English.”
Ir Amim reports that the publication of the tender for construction of the Givat Hamatos settlement in East Jerusalem – which has been fully approved since 2014 – has been delayed once again, marking the third time the government has delayed the opening of the tender. According to an announcement by the Israel Lands Authority, the tender is now scheduled to be opened for bidding on November 2nd.
Following the announcement of delay, Israel’s Housing Ministry issued a statement defending Prime Minister Netanyahu from accusations by settlers and their allies that he has bowed to international pressure to abandon the Givat Hamatos settlement plan. The Ministry released a statement saying that the delays are due to technical issues, not political ones, and that the Ministry is currently discussing routine budgetary and development considerations with the Jerusalem Municipality in preparation for the eventual construction of the settlement.
Ir Amim notes:
“Such recurring postponement of a tender is unprecedented. On the one hand, the delays are a sign that Israel is under strong pressure not to open the tender – which is seen as a red line by the international community; it may be that negotiations currently underway with Arab states under the auspices of the Trump administration are also a cause for the delay. On the other hand, the fact that Israel refuses to withdraw the tender and has repeatedly set new dates for its opening shows how determined the government is to begin construction in Givat Hamatos and therefore it is leaving the door open so that it can seize an opportunity once it feels able to do so.”
Givat Hamatos has long been regarded as a doomsday settlement by parties interested in preserving the possibility of a two-state solution. If the Givat Hamatos settlement is built, the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa in East Jerusalem will be completely surrounded by Israeli construction, severing its connection to the West Bank.
One More Step Towards Mass Eviction, Jerusalem Court Orders Eviction of Additional Four Families in Silwan in Favor of Radical Settler Group
Peace Now reports that in the case of a longstanding property dispute in Silwan, the Jerusalem Magistrates Court ruled in favor of the radical settler group Ateret Cohanim, ordering the eviction of the Rajabi family, consisting of 26 individuals, from their longtime homes in Silwan. The court ordered the family to vacate the three properties by April 2021.
This case is one of nearly a dozen lawsuits brought by Ateret Cohanim seeking the eviction of approximately 700 Palestinians from the Batan al-Hawa section of Silwan. Ateret Cohanim has maneuvered to have the Court order these evictions by gaining control of an pre-1948 land trust – called the Benvenisti Trust – and then asserting their ownership of land in Silwan where Palestinians have lived for generations. This is now the fourth instance in which the Court has ruled in Ateret Cohanim’s favor, strongly suggesting that the dozens of pending cases will also be decided in the settlers favor.
Peace Now said in a statement:
“This is an attempt to displace a Palestinian community and to replace it with an Israeli one, in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The settlers could not have succeeded without the Israeli authorities’ close support and assistance. In addition to the hard blow to the prospects for a two-state solution by preventing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, this is an injustice and an act of cruelty to throw out families who have lived lawfully in their homes for decades. For every dunam in East Jerusalem that was owned by Jews and had been lost in the 1948 war, there are tens of thousands of dunams in Israel that were owned by Palestinians who lost them in the 1948 war. The settlers’ demand to disposes the Palestinians based on pre-1948 ownership is a strategic threat on the moral justification of hundreds of thousands of Israelis living on lands that were owned by Palestinians.”
As FMEP has detailed, Ateret Cohanim is a settler organization which works to establish Jewish enclaves inside densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, for the explicit purpose of “reclaiming” Palestinian parts of Jerusalem for Jews. In Silwan, its tactics depend largely on identifying land that belonged to Jews before 1948 and, with the support of Israeli laws and courts, acting to “reclaim” it. Notably, under Israeli law, Palestinians enjoy no similar right to reclaim land that belonged to them before 1948 (to the contrary – Israeli law is engineered to erase Palestinian properties rights based, largely based on the absentee property law). The current and pending evictions are based on the fact that in 2001, Ateret Cohanim gained control of the Benvenisti Trust, which owned land in Silwan in the 19th century. In 2002, the Israeli Custodian General agreed to transfer land in Batan al-Hawa to the Trust/Ateret Cohanim. Since then, Ateret Cohanim has accelerated its multifaceted campaign to remove Palestinians from their homes, claiming that the Palestinians are illegally squatting on sacred land owned by the Trust.
Haaretz columnist Nir Hasson tells the story:
“The neighborhood of Batan al-Hawa is an extreme example stressing the difference between how Arab property was dealt with as opposed to Jewish property. A Jewish neighborhood that had been built for immigrants from Yemen with funds raised by the philanthropic organization Ezrat Nidahim lay in the Batan al-Hawa area until 1938. The homes in the neighborhood were owned by an Ottoman-era land trust that was registered in the name of Rabbi Moshe Benvenisti. In 2001, more than a century after the land trust had been established, the Jerusalem District Court approved the request by three members of Ateret Cohanim to become trustees of the land. With this brief decision that takes up half a page, and a subsequent decision by the Custodian General, the state placed 700 Palestinians, along with their property, under the control of Ateret Cohanim, which seeks to increase Jewish presence in Jerusalem’s Old City.”
Jerusalem Committee Delays Decision on the Cable Car Project, & Defers Decision on Silwan Land Expropriation to the High Court
At a meeting on September 9th, the Jerusalem Municipality’s Planning & Building Committee decided to delay its final approval of plans to build a cable car line in East Jerusalem until the High Court of Justice issues a ruling on whether or not the state is permitted to expropriate the privately owned Palestinian land that is needed to carry out its construction. The High Court is actively considering the cable car case, recently ordering the state to offer a factual explanation for how the cable car line will boost tourism in the city – an explanation that the state has struggled to articulate convincingly. The state was ordered to submit that explanation on September 7th, but requested and received an extension of that deadline to October 1st.
Despite the ongoing court case, the Times of Israel reports that the Jerusalem Development Authority is actively planning for implementation of the project, even issuing public notices in newspapers over the past few weeks in preparation for accepting bids for the construction of the project. The notices announced two conferences slated to be held in October for interested bidders to learn more about the plans.
Some of the land slated for expropriation in connection with the cable car plan is located in Silwan, a densely populated Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem that is the focus of intense settler activity. Ir Amim reports on the details of the expropriation the plan requires:
“The expropriation is intended for the construction of infrastructure poles and stations for the cable car. Some of the expropriation is permanent and some is for an eight-year period. The land targeted for expropriation lies on both sides of the Green Line. On the East of the Green Line, eight parcels of land in Silwan with a total area of 1,357 square meters are targeted for expropriation. The significance of the expropriation is much more than its size may suggest. The lands marked for expropriation are located in the densely built up area of Wadi Hilwe, Silwan. At worst they can lead to the demolition of nearby homes if they were built without a permit. Even if homes are not demolished, the construction of the cable car infrastructure and the subsequent operation of the cable car above their rooftops will greatly harm the community of Wadi Hilwe.
Most significant is the purpose and the impact that the operation of the Cable Car will have on Wadi Hilwe and the whole of Silwan. This huge transportation project is funded by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism at a budget of hundreds of millions of shekels. It will connect between West Jerusalem (“The First Station” complex) and the Kedem Compound in Wadi Hilwe, Silwan. The Kedem Compound is a planned visitor center that the settler organization ELAD is planning to construct on the main road of Silwan across from the City of David National Park which it operates. Although the Cable Car is presented as a means of public transportation for those wishing to visit the Old City, its station is planned to be constructed on the roof of the ELAD controlled Kedem Compound whereby it will lead all those who use it to ELAD’s Activity Center.”
In response to the Committee’s decision this week to delay approval of the plan, Emek Shaveh said:
“We are pleased that the municipality and members of the committee have shown responsibility and stopped the deplorable attempt by the promoters of the cable car to advance the expropriation of private property before the High Court even rules on the matter. We thank the promoters for disclosing how the cable car will look and who will pay the price for its construction: the cable car pillars will be constructed inside the yards of the residents of Silwan and the cars will sail directly over their heads.”
Handing Another Victory to New Settler Strategy, Civil Admin Issues Expropriation Orders for West Bank Antiquities Sites
On August 31st, the Israeli Civil Administration issued expropriation orders for two archaeological sites in the West Bank 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 two antiquity sites expropriated on August 21st are both located next to settlements. The site of Deir Sam’an is owned by Palestinians from the village of a-Dik, which is adjacent to the settlement of Leshem. The Deir Kala’ archeological site is owned by residents of Deir Balut, and is adjacent to the Peduel settlement. For a background on both of these antiquity sites – see Emek Shaveh’s analysis.
Emek Shaveh said in a statement:
“In the past two years we have witnessed increasing pressure by settler organizations on the Civil Administration and the Staff Officer for Archaeology to increase the use of archaeological sites to remove Palestinians from Area C. While in Susya, the pretext for the expropriation was the existence of an ancient synagogue and therefore logical from the point of view of the authorities, the decision to expropriate two Byzantine era sites is unusual and attests to the growing trend of using archaeological sites as a pretext for barring Palestinians from sites in Area C.”
FMEP has covered the recent surge of settler pressure on the government to take control of archeological sites which are owned and/or controlled by Palestinians. 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 in 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 declared 1,000 new archaeological sites in Area C of the West Bank. The 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 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. The group’s leaders accuse the Palestinian Authority of mismanaging the sites and they accuse Palestinians of looting them. The group is demanding that Israel annex all the sites.
The Israeli government is reportedly working to find a way to circumvent the recent High Court order requiring the evacuation of 12 structures built on privately owned Palestinian land in the Mitzpe Kramim outpost from evacuation. Of the 16 structures in the Mitzpe Kramim outpost, 12 were built on land that Israel has (very reluctantly) acknowledged to be owned by Palestinians. Settlers say that evacuation of the 12 homes will spell the end for the entire outpost community.
Israel’s Reshet Bet radio reported that Israeli Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Binyamin Regional Council mayor Yisrael Gantz, and senior Netanyahu aid Ronen Peretz are working together on a plan to get around the Court ruling. There is reportedly a sense of optimism that the team will succeed because the Israeli Attorney General supports the settlers’ claim to stay in their homes, and because Israeli Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn criticized the ruling, which was issued on August 27th.
In its ruling, the High Court held that construction of the Mitzpe Kramim outpost was not undertaken in “good faith” because there were “multiple warning signs” that the land was privately owned.
The “good faith” condition for retroactive legalization of illegal settler construction on privately-owned Palestinian land is a central element of the “market regulation” legal principle which was issued by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in December 2018 as an alternative to the (now overturned) Settlement Regulation Law. The principle offers a path to grant retroactive legalization to the settlers for what this principle treats as “unintentional” land theft – throwing the principles of both rule of law and the private property rights out the window. Peace Now has a comprehensive breakdown of the legal opinion, including the specific criteria outlining which outposts can qualify under the new scheme. Attorney General Mandelblit estimated that 2,000 illegal settlement structures qualify for retroactive legalization using this principle.
In a special report, Terrestrial Jerusalem, the Israeli NGO led by Jerusalem expert Danny Seidemann, warns that the new UAE-Israel normalization deal echoes a controversial provision in the Trump Plan which significantly erodes the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.
Under the current understanding – most recently agreed to by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah in 2015 – members of all religions are allowed to visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but only Muslims are allowed to pray there. This policy is consistent with the status quo that has reigned on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif dating back to before 1967, and that has been upheld by every Israeli government since it took control of the area in the 1967 War.
In a little-noted but highly consequential shift in approach, the Trump Plan specifically called for people of all faiths to be allowed to pray at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The inclusion of this language in the Trump Plan suggested that the current U.S. administration has embraced and is now formally promoting the agenda of Israel’s “Temple Mount-ers” – hardline religious nationalists who seek to expand Israeli/Jewish control of the site and open it to Jewish prayer.
Subsequently, this shift to embracing a change in the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount status quo showed up again in the Joint Statement released by Israel, the UAE, and the United States, albeit in language that is somewhere more artful. The statement specifies that only Muslims may pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque, while all faiths are allowed to pray at “other holy sites” in Jerusalem. This formula – which is brand new – clearly suggests that Jewish prayer is to be allowed on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, just not in the Aqsa Mosque (meaning, for example, that if Jews want to enter the Dome of the Rock and pray there, they would be permitted to do so).
Terrestrial Jerusalem writes:
“The cumulative message of the new policies and recent events is clear: if, in the past, the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif was a Muslim place of worship open to the visits of non-Muslim guests, it is rapidly becoming a shared Muslim-Jewish site, like the Ibrahamiya Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. This is the declared goal of the Temple Mount Movement and the deepest fears of the Muslim worshipers. And it’s already happening. For centuries, a spark on the Mount has been the likeliest cause of an eruption of violence in the Holy Land, and the current trends on the Mount are making just such an event more likely. Events at Al Aqsa invariably send shock waves throughout the region. Should an incendiary incident on Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mount indeed take place and intersect with the sense that Palestinian/Arab/Muslim interests and equities on the Mount are being bartered away, the results might be dire indeed. And now, what is happening on the ground has been enshrined in the founding statement upon which Israel-Emirati agreement is based.”
The report ends with a warning:
“Jerusalem is a very wise and kind city to those treating her complexities with the reverence they deserve. It is a cruel and vindictive town to those who treat those complexities cavalierly, or ignore them. Jerusalem’s millennia old history is littered with the bodies, literal and figurative, of conquerors, prophets and emperors who acting as though Jerusalem a is a private or collective asset to be exploited at whim, or a commodity which can be bartered. One tinkers with Jerusalem at grave peril to all involved, and the provisions of the Joint Statement recklessly tinker with the status quo. As currently crafted, normalization is being used as a cover to allow one of its stakeholders to remold the most sensitive place in Jerusalem in its own ideological image. One need only recall the aftermath of the opening of the Western Wall Tunnel in 1996 (by the very same Netanyahu) and the Sharon visit to Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mount in 2000 in order to realize just how irresponsible and dangerous this can be.”
- “Stop or suspend West Bank annexation? Devil in the detail for Israel-UAE Deal” (Reuters)
- “Israel’s Message to Troops Placing Explosives at Village: Don’t Worry, It’s Combat” (Haaretz)
- “Tourist Attractions in ‘Yesha-stan’: A Display of Israel’s Apartheid Mindset” (Haaretz)
- “Despite COVID-19 Travel Ban, Israel Lets in 70 Evangelicals to Volunteer in Settlements” (Haaretz)
- “Palestinian leaders: Disabled access to Tomb of Patriarchs is ‘war crime’” (Jerusalem Post)
- “Researchers: Israel is going ahead with annexation” (MEMO)