Welcome to FMEP’s Weekly Settlement Report, covering everything you need to know about Israeli settlement activity this week.
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April 24, 2020
- The Facts on the Bibi/Gantz Annexation Agreement
- The World Responds (or doesn’t) to Formation of Annexation Government
- Gantz Takes Over Defense Ministry – Including Authority Over Settlement Construction (at least until July 1st)
- Settlers, Yamina Party Dissatisfied with & Suspicious of Netanyahu’s Annexation Plans
- Plans Advance for Two New Settlement Enclaves in the Beit Hanina Neighborhood
- B’Tselem: With IDF Backing, Settlers are Violently Stealing Land During COVID-19 Crisis
- Coming Soon: Plans for Har Homa Expansion Scheduled for Discussion on April 27th
- Coming Soon: Israel To Open Bidding on “Doomsday” Givat Hamatos Settlement Tender on May 3rd
- IDF Demolishes Outpost Structures, Including in Outpost From Which the Criminal “Hilltop Youth” Group Hail
- Yesh Din Outlines Potential Impact of Annexation on Palestinian Human Rights (Spoiler: It’s Bad)
- Bonus Reads
Comments or questions – email Kristin McCarthy (email@example.com).
Under the new emergency unity government agreement, the issue of annexation is at the total discretion of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Per the coalition agreement signed by Netanyahu and Gantz on April 20th, the stipulations related to annexation are:
- The U.S. must give its “full agreement” to the annexation plan, including on the maps of West Bank land Israeli legislation will specify for annexation. Reminder: the U.S. and Israel have already formed a joint mapping committee aimed at translating the conceptual map appended to the Trump Plan into a detailed plan. The U.S. has signalled that it will give its approval to the resulting map and to date, the Trump Administration has only offered its total support for Israeli annexation – including Secretary Pompeo in a April 22nd press conference.
- Netanyahu and Gantz must “engage in dialogue” with (but are not obligated to secure any form of consent from) the international community, “with the aim of preserving the security and strategic interests of Israel including maintaining regional stability, preserving existing peace agreements and working towards future peace agreements.” During the negotiations that paved the way for the unity agreement, international coordination as a condition for any annexation was reportedly one of Gantz’s key demands, with particular insistence on the king of Jordan being consulted; as is clear from the agreement, Gantz totally folded on this point (among others).
- On July 1, 2020, Prime Minister Netanyahu can bring the U.S-approved annexation plan up for discussion in the Cabinet and/or for a vote in the Knesset, – without the support/approval of Gantz. The unity agreement consists of a six-month “emergency period” during which Netanyahu is prohibited from introducing any legislation unrelated to Israel’s fight against the Coronavirus. Annexation legislation is the one and only exception from this prohibition, with the agreement allowing Netanyahu to move annexation legislation as of July 1 (the delay until July representing the empty “concession” extracted by Gantz in negotiations). Indeed, by providing two separate ways to move annexation – via the Cabinet or via the Knesset – the agreement ensures Netanyahu will be able to pass the bill even if he does not have a majority in the Cabinet (seats on which will be split equally between Netanyahu and Gantz appointees in the new government).
- Only a Likud member of the Knesset is permitted to introduce an annexation plan in the Knesset, provided that the plan is identical to the one promoted by Prime Minister Netanyahu. This stipulation prevents more radical annexation plans from being moved in the Knesset by members of other political parties, and also eliminates any role of Gantz in Knesset proceedings.
- Once introduced into the Knesset, the annexation legislation cannot be delayed or vetoed. By accepting this clause, Gantz has agreed in advance that he cannot block the bill from passage. At the same time, the agreement magnanimously allows Gantz and his fellow Blue & White Members of the Knesset to “vote their conscience” and oppose the annexation bill (FMEP has previously explained the political strategy behind this). Under the unity agreement, this is the only matter on which Gantz agreed to forfeit his veto power.
The Palestinians were vocal in their opposition of the new government and its annexation plan, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas threatening to cancel all agreements with Israel and the United States if annexation plans proceed.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S. government welcomed the unity government agreement and, with Secretary of State Pompeo stating he was “happy” that the sides had reached an agreement and noting:
“As for the annexation of the West Bank, the Israelis will ultimately make those decisions. That’s an Israeli decision. And we will work closely with them to share with them our views of this in (a) private setting.”
The government of France issued the most notably strong statement (so far) rejecting annexation, saying:
“Such steps if implemented would not pass unchallenged and shall not be overlooked in our relationship with Israel.”
An European Union’s foreign affairs spokesman stated that “If this proceeds, it will not be left unanswered.” Separately. the EU’s Chief of Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, issued a statement vowing to “closely monitor” annexation efforts, reiterating that the EU holds annexation as a “serious violation of international law.” Remarkably, 8 of 27 EU member states opposed Borrell’s statement, signalling a fractured and therefore weak EU stance against annexation. During discussions with member states, Borrell reportedly argued for including a threat of sanctions against Israel if annexation is advanced, a point which drew opposition. Other states were reportedly hesitant over the timing of the statement, claiming to be concerned about preemptively souring relations with the new government, and particularly Gantz.
In response, Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz attacked Burrell and praised EU states that opposed the EU statement, including:
“It is unfortunate to read that Joseph Burrell, who claims to be trusted with the EU’s foreign relations, chooses to welcome the new government of a central partner of the EU in this way, and prefers to see the relationship between Israel and the EU through the prism of the pandemic and the ‘status of the territories.’ Given the depth of the relationship and in light of the fact that this announcement did not receive the support of the EU member states yesterday, we wonder which policies the honorable gentleman is choosing to represent, and not for the first time.”
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney made a strong statement warning Israel against annexation:
“Annexation of territory by force is prohibited under international law, including the UN Charter, whenever and wherever it occurs, in Europe’s neighbourhood or globally. This is a fundamental principle in the relations of states and the rule of law in the modern world. No one state can set it aside at will. Ireland remains committed to a negotiated two-state solution that ends the occupation that began in 1967, with Jerusalem as the capital of both States, on the basis of international law, the internationally-agreed parameters and relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”
Germany’s mission to the UN tweeted:
“Germany strongly advises against the annexation of occupied Palestinian territories. This would have serious, negative repercussions on the viability of the two-state solution, the entire peace process, regional stability and ISR standing within the international community.”
The UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador James Roscoe, delivered a statement in the UN Security Council noting:
“we are deeply concerned by reports that the new Israeli government coalition has reached an agreement which paves the way for annexation of parts of the West Bank. The UK position is clear: any unilateral moves towards annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel would be damaging to efforts to restart peace negotiations and would be contrary to international law.”
The UN’s special Middle East envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, said that annexation would,
“deal a devastating blow to the two-state solution, close the door to a renewal of negotiations, and threaten efforts to advance regional peace.”
Gantz Takes Over Defense Ministry – Including Authority Over Settlement Construction (at least until July 1st)
The newly signed unity government agreement will see Benny Gantz appointed as the Defense Minister of Israel, taking over the post from Yamina MK Naftali Bennet. As Defense Minister, Gantz will take control of the Civil Administration, which is a body within the Defense Ministry which serves as the sovereign authority in the occupied territories. For as long as the Civil Administration exists and Israel has not formally annexed the West Bank, Gantz will hold enormous power over decisions related to land seizures and allocations, settlement construction and enforcement of Israeli building regulations in the West Bank (of course, even without annexation, Netanyahu – as the highest official in the government, will retain important if not decisive authority in all settlement-related decisions).
The objective of annexation, of course, is to fully normalize and permanently integrate the settlements into the state of Israel, bringing them fully under the laws and governance of Israel’s government. If and when such annexation is implemented, the current system of governance over the settlements — which since 1967 has run through the Defense Ministry, reflecting the fact that the land is held by Israel under a status even the Israeli High Court has recognized as “belligerent military occupation” — will perforce be dismantled. In the event of partial annexation, areas annexed to Israel would perforce no longer be under Civil Administration authority.
Nonetheless, we have seen what a determined Defense Minister can accomplish over a short period of time. Over the course of his 6 months as Defense Minister, Naftali Bennet aggressively exercised the significant power of that office to promote numerous settlement plans, including controversial plans that required careful legal maneuvering. Among his accomplishments are:
- The issuance of a new legal opinion to enable settlement construction above the old vegetable market in Hebron;
- The approval of plans to build a controversial new road near Jerusalem, dubbed by the settlers the “sovereignty road” — an important step towards building the E-1 settlement;
- The announcement of seven new “nature reserves” in the West Bank, and the expansion of 12 existing reserves;
- The launching of legal research into how Israeli can bring settlement building in Area C under the direct authority of the Justice Ministry, cutting out the Civil Administration;
- The creation of an inter-ministerial taskforce to develop settlement and annexation plans for the future of Area C in the West Bank. Reports indicate the taskforce agenda includes:
- Allowing Jews to privately purchase land in the West Bank. [See here for a detailed explanation of this complicated matter];
- connecting unauthorized outposts to water and electricity;
- granting official recognition to unauthorized outposts that are located near established settlements by recognizing them as “neighborhoods” of the settlement;
- repealing a military order that empowers the Civil Administration to evict settlers from privately owned Palestinian land with or without a Palestinian-initiated petition to have the settlers removed;
- legalizing 30 sheep farms in the West Bank that are under pending demolition orders.
It is worth noting, however, that other ministries also have authorities with respect to support for an governance over settlements, a messy situation which is the result of Israel’s creeping annexation via the extension of Israeli domestic laws and regulations over the settlements/settlers [FMEP maintains a compendium of these laws and regulations]. The Israeli Education Ministry recently brought settlement colleges and universities under its authority. The Transportation Ministry has funded the construction of hotels and other tourist infrastructure in the settlements. The Agricultural Ministry facilitates the sharing of egg quotas between settlements and Israeli cities. The Interior Ministry facilitates tax sharing and redistribution between the settlements and Israeli communities. And of course the Justice Ministry has a central role in defending settlement activity in the West Bank, and is playing a key role in the bid to find new legal mechanisms for granting retroactive authorization to illegal outposts and expropriating privately owned Palestinian land.
Under the new governing agreement, the ministries are set to be divided between Likud and Blue & White. With respect to ministries that have direct involvement in settlements, Israeli media reports suggest that in addition to the Defense Ministry, Blue & White will get the Justice Ministry (with Avi Nissenkorn reportedly set to be the next ministry), the Ministry of Economy, and the Ministry of Agriculture. For its part, in addition to maintaining the position of Prime Minister for at least 18 months, Likud will get the Housing & Construction Ministry (which has a central role in West Bank settlement construction), the Finance Ministry, the Transportation Ministry, the Ministry of the Interior, the Education Ministry, the Ministry of Public Security, and will appoint the next Speaker of the Knesset (expected to be Yariv Levin) who will serve for the entire 18 months of the unity government’s duration.
The Times of Israel suggests that this division amongst parties might result in incoherent policies on the settlements:
“Take for example the West Bank settlements that will seek to capitalize on any Israeli declaration of sovereignty in the coming months to encourage a growth in population and economic development. The heads of controversial outlying settlements will undoubtedly find a sympathetic ear in the right-wing-led ministries of transportation or housing — both vital to their development — but will face a colder reception in the ministries of agriculture and economy, on which their livelihoods depend and which are slated to be led by the Gantz bloc’s Blue and White and Labor respectively in the new cabinet. Will the new government support those settlements or try to limit their growth? Both.”
Having been left out of any leadership role in the new unity government, the Yamina party – an alliance of far-right parties led by Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, and Bezalel Smotrich – has not yet decided whether to remain part of Netanyahu’s alliance or become an opposition party to the newly formed unity government. The faction’s central grievance concerns Netanyahu’s concessions on judicial appointees (which leave Yamina completely out of that important government process), and Yamina’s continued suspicion over Netanyahu’s intentions on annexation.
Throughout the negotiations, Shaked and Bennett continued to express their rejection to the Trump Plan, based on their opposition to that plan holding out even the pretense of allowing for the establishment of a (discontiguous, powerless, politically and economically non-viable) Palestinian state in the future. In an attempt to cast doubt on whether the Prime Minister intends to implement the annexation path laid out in the unity deal, Bennett threw punches at Netanyahu, calling him “all talk” on the matter of annexation. Shortly after the deal was signed Bennett told the press:
“This is a left-wing government led by Netanyahu. All the things we care about are going to the [Blue and White-led] bloc. The agreement doesn’t leave us any way to have influence.”
While many settler leaders welcomed the new government, most withheld a full-throated celebration over the annexation clause – either because some settlers are dissatisfied with the Trump Plan (like Yamina) or because settlers distrust Netanyahu’s promises. Like Yamina, settlers are pushing for an even more expansive annexation than the one laid out in the Trump plan. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent comment that annexation is an Israeli decision gave settler leaders even more ammunition with which to threaten Netanyahu. Beit El Council head Shai Alon said:
“There are no more excuses. It’s time for action. The ball is in the new government’s court. If sovereignty doesn’t happen now, who knows when the next opportunity will come around.”
Prior to the agreement being finalized, Yesha Council head David Elhayani told The Jerusalem Post:
“I don’t think that the US will go against us [Israel] when Trump is president…You have to throw this [Trump] plan into the trash and the State of Israel has to decide to make the right decision. That decision is to apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea and [all] the settlements…”
Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan said in a statement:
“I congratulate the prime minister and MK Benny Gantz on reaching an agreement…We will work with the government, in partnership and, when necessary, in a forceful manner, in order to advance sovereignty in the coming period and to expand construction and development in Judea and Samaria.”
While the unity agreement means that Yamina will not have power in the new government, its impact on the unity agreement and on the course of Israel’s future under this government should not be underestimated. The dogged pressure on Netanyahu exerted by Shaked, Bennett and their settler friends may have helped him secure concessions from Gantz in negotiations, but in so doing it also put Netanyahu in corner, depriving him of any politically easy way to delay annexation, should he want to do so (that said, the idea that he would want to do so is increasingly far-fetched — according to Barak Ravid, Netanyahu sees annexation as his main legacy as Prime Minister). Indeed, under the coalition agreement Netanyahu’s only excuse for delaying or preventing annexation would be U.S. opposition — and the Trump administration is already on the record (with the Trump Plan and in statements) in support of annexation.
Ir Amim reports that on April 22nd, the Jerusalem Local Planning Committee recommended the advancement of plans to build two new settlement enclaves inside the Beit Hanina neighborhood of East Jerusalem. With the committee’s recommendation, the plans advance to the Jerusalem District Planning Committee for discussion. In January 2020, the Jerusalem District Planning Committee granted final approval to plans for another enclave in Beit Hanina, marking the first time the Israeli government granted authorization for settlement construction in Beit Hanina.
The plans for the two new enclaves are closely linked to East Jerusalem settlement empresario and Jerusalem municipal councilman Aryeh King. Ir Amim notes the role King has played behind the scenes and the potential impact of the enclaves:
“Although originally scheduled to be discussed at the Local Planning Committee on March 18, they were subsequently omitted from the agenda. The plans likewise reappeared on the agenda for discussions on April 1 and again removed. For a third time, the plans re-emerged on the agenda for today’s discussions at the Local Planning Committee and were subsequently taken off and then immediately placed back on. Such moves indicate concerted pressure to advance these plans by prominent settler figures, including Arieh King, longstanding settler activist and Jerusalem Municipal Councilman who is behind the promotion of these projects. The establishment of more settler enclaves in the heart of Beit Hanina will not only impact the fabric of this community and fracture its space, but will further erode opening conditions for a political solution to the conflict based on two capitals in Jerusalem.”
Ir Amim previously provided essential context to Beit Hanina settlement schemes:
“the plan will enable an ideologically driven settler outpost in the heart of Beit Hanina, a neighborhood located on the northern perimeter of East Jerusalem that has remained relatively untouched by Israeli settlement within its limits. Since the land in question is not far from Ramat Shlomo to the south-west and Pisgat Zeev to the north-east of it, its construction may mark the beginning of a far sweeping move to create contiguity between the two settlements, while driving a wedge between Bet Hanina and Shuafat.”
B’Tselem documented 23 attacks by settlers on Palestinians and/or Palestinian property in the first three weeks of April 2020, continuing what is now a two-month trend of increased settler violence during the coronavirus shutdown which began in mid-March.
The violence centered around well-known hotspots:
- The Shilo Valley, were settlers terrorized the Palestinian villages of al-Mughayir, Turmusaya, Qaryut and Qusrah;
- The South Hebron Hills, particularly near the outpost of Havat Ma’on as well as near the settlements of Rimonim and Kochav Hashahar; and
- The area around the Halamish settlement, where another new outpost was recently erected.
B’Tselem also notes that settlers In the Jordan Valley harrass Palestinian herders on a daily basis, but these incidents are not counted in the violent attack data.
B’Tselem underscores the state support for such violence and its goal: the dispossession of Palestinians. It writes:
“These actions are part of a joint strategy by the settlers and Israeli authorities to systematically block Palestinian access to land – one acre, field, fertile plot, grove or pasture at a time – for decades on end, and take effective control of it. This way the state transfers the means of livelihood of Palestinians into the hands of Israelis. Settler violence is the state’s unofficial, privatized arm that serves to gradually achieve this goal. The state’s full support for this violence is evident in the actions of Israeli security forces on the ground. Five of eight attacks on Palestinian homes in March occurred in the presence of soldiers, who not only allowed the settlers to do as they pleased but took action against Palestinians trying to protect their families and homes. In some cases, soldiers arrested residents, and in at least three incidents fired tear gas canisters at residents. In three incidents, the soldiers arrived with the marauding settlers or joined them early on in the assault. Similar incidents occurred in April, with soldiers firing rubber-coated metal bullets and tear gas canisters at residents, as has happened in the villages of Qusrah and a-Shuyukh on 6 April. In the Qatash brothers’ case, after the assault, the settlers handed ‘Issa Qatash over to soldiers, who did not give him any medical assistance or help him get back to his family. Instead, they simply abandoned him in the field with a fractured leg. For years, Israel has allowed settlers to attack Palestinians and damage their property virtually unimpeded, as a matter of policy. This includes provision of military protection for the attackers, and in some cases soldiers’ active participation in the assault. The police, meanwhile, hold back from enforcing the law on the offenders. This is part of Israel’s strategy to encourage the dispossession of Palestinians from growing areas throughout the West Bank, which paves the state’s way to take over more land and resources. The fact that this violence has exacerbated during a global pandemic adds another layer of brutality to Israel’s policy.”
According to Ir Amim, the Jerusalem District Committee is scheduled to discuss two plans for a total of 2,500 new settlement units in Har Homa E (also called Har Homa West) settlement on April 27th. The two plans were last discussed in February 2020, following Prime Minister’s Netanayhu’s lifting of a freeze on contentious East Jerusalem settlements (a development which also saw the E-1 settlement plans advance). At the time, the Har Homa plans were delayed for technical reasons.
Ir Amim explains:
“The resubmission of these plans for discussion only two months following the committee’s decision not to advance them and likewise amid the COVID-19 pandemic with its accompanied government restrictions and limitations highlights the pressure being applied to promote these plans. Construction in Har Homa E will serve as another step in connecting the existing Gilo and Har Homa neighborhoods/settlements and create a contiguous Israeli built-up area along the southern perimeter of East Jerusalem. This will likewise detach Bethlehem and the southern West Bank from East Jerusalem while isolating the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa. In line with the new reality created by the Trump Plan and its unilateral recognition of Israeli sovereignty of East Jerusalem, these developments will constitute a major obstacle towards the future establishment of a Palestinian capital in the city and the prospect of a viable two-state framework.”
For further details on the two Har Homa E plans – one of which is a master plan – see Ir Amim’s excellent analysis.
According to Ir Amim, the Israeli government will open the Givat Hamatos settlement tender for bidding starting May 3rd, despite the fact that the government has delayed opening bidding on several other tenders due to the ongoing COVID-19 state of emergency.
The tender appeared on the Israel Land Authority’s website on February 24th, but it was unclear whether or not the bidding timeline would be delayed. Ir Amim writes:
“It is reasonable to assert that voices on the political right are racking up pressure to ensure the tender is open for bidding on May 3 despite the current circumstances. Constituting a longstanding international red line, Israeli building in Givat Hamatos will seal off the southern perimeter of East Jerusalem from Bethlehem and the southern West Bank, effectively eroding conditions necessary for the establishment of a Palestinian capital in the city within a viable two-state framework. If the tender is indeed published, it would significantly decrease the potentiality to effectively block Israeli building in the area. Concerted opposition and pressure to freeze the tender is therefore vital in this limited window of time in lead-up to May 3.”
IDF Demolishes Outpost Structures, Including in Outpost From Which the Criminal “Hilltop Youth” Group Hail
On April 22nd, hundreds of Israeli Border Police deployed to outposts associated with the radical and violent Yitzhar settlement in order to demolish six structures in three different outposts in the area. The demolitions included 2 structures in the Kumi Ori outpost, which serves as the home turf of the 20 extremist “Hilltop Youth” settlers who were recently quarantined in a new outpost established by the IDF especially for the group, from which the settlers violently attacked Palestinians nearby and absconded with Israeli army gear. The other demolished structures were located in the nearby Kipa Sruga and Tekuma outposts.
A lawyer representing the settlers filed a petition in an attempt to stop the demolitions, arguing that the Israeli Defense Ministry announced that it would not be implementing home demolition orders while battling the COVID-19 outbreak (though the Kumi Ori settlers clearly have no regard for Israeli policy meant to stop the spread of the virus).
While the violent and illegal actions of the quarantined settler youth drew major headlines and condemnation even from the likes of devoted settler supporter Defense Minister Nafatli Bennett, this week’s demolition of two structures in the Kumi Ori outpost – one of which was the residence of the notorious and violent settler Neria Zarog – is part of a multi-year battle between the state of Israel and settlers over the outpost. Israel has demolished structures at the Kumi Ori site more than 10 times – most recently in January 2020 – and the IDF declared the area a “closed military zone” just six months ago. Kumi Ori settlers not only refuse to comply with IDF orders but have violently attacked Israeli forces, including an incident in March 2020 when settlers threw molotov cocktails at an IDF vehicle which arrived at the outpost site. During the demolition this week, two settlers were arrested, including Zarog, who refused to leave the building slated for demolition.
In a new report, entitled “The Potential Impact of West Bank Annexation by Israel on the Human Rights of Palestinian Residents,” the Israeli NGO Yesh Din lays out four of the most alarming implications of annexation. In its last point, Yesh Din argues that annexation along the lines of the Trump Plan will reveal the operational reality in the West Bank: Apartheid. Yes Din writes:
“Annexation will pull the rug from under the argument, currently prevalent in many circles, that while Apartheid, or at least an Apartheid-like regime, is currently practiced in the West Bank, the sovereign State of Israel is a democracy. Applying Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank would be tantamount to a declaration that there is one regime, rather than separate administrations.”
Other impacts will include the mass expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land (violating property rights), even more limitations on freedom of movement, the expansion of settlements and outposts which systematically violate Palestinians’ human rights, the expulsion of communities living in unrecognized villages in the areas annexed by Israel, and consolidating Isarel’s control over natural resources.
- “Whoever Thinks West Bank Annexation Will Pass Quietly, Better Think Again” (Haaretz)
- “COVID-19 shows how reckless Jordan Valley annexation would be” (The Times of Israel)
- “Isareli-Palestinian Virus Cooperations Imperiled Amid Unity Gov’t, Annexation Bid” (Times of Israel)
- “Coronavirus and Political Inaction on the Conflict” (The Times of Israel)
- “Israel’s Memorial Day gift to bereaved families: Olive oil from a West Bank settlement” (+972 Magazine)
- “From Settlements to Annexation” (Canadian Friends of Peace Now – webinar)
- “COVID-19 Emergency Situation Report 5 (14 – 20 April 2020)” (OCHA)