Welcome to FMEP’s Weekly Settlement Report, covering everything you need to know about Israeli settlement activity this week.
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April 26, 2019
- Israeli Court Reaffirms: Settlers Must Vacate Palestinian Home in Hebron
- Israel Confiscates Privately Palestinian Land for New Settler Bypass Road
- Annexation in Play in Negotiations over Israel’s Next Coalition Government
- OCHA: Palestinians in Downtown Hebron Suffer at Hands of Settlers & IDF; Israel Politicians: Time to Triple Number of Hebron Settlers
- Bonus Reads
On April 22nd, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court rejected an appeal by settlers to stop their eviction from a Palestinian-owned home in Hebron, where they have been squatting for the past 18 years. In addition, the court ordered the settlers to pay the true homeowners – the Palestinian Bakri family – $160,000 (NIS 80,000) in damages. Unsurprisingly, the settlers’ attorney immediately announced that they will file another appeal with the Jerusalem District Court — delaying the implementation of the eviction order once again.
The Bakri family has spent the past 18 years petitioning Israeli police and Israeli courts to remove the settlers — cases the Bakri family has repeatedly won. Yet, the settlers have managed to repeatedly delay their eviction by exploiting every possible legal argument, no matter how absurd or contradictory: at different points over the past 18 years, settlers have argued in court that they had a rental agreement; that they purchased the home; that the plot of land was owned by a Jewish trust prior to 1948 and so they have a right to “reclaim” the property; and that regardless of ownership before they took possession, because they have now invested so much money in improving the property it now, under Ottoman Law, legally belongs to them. Underscoring the mockery settlers have made out of the Israeli justice system, when at one point some years ago the courts ruled that the settlers had to vacate, the settlers who at the time were occupying the Bakri home did, indeed, leave, only to be immediately replaced by other settlers — at which point the Israeli Attorney General told the Bakri family that if they wanted THESE settlers, out, they had to start eviction proceedings anew.
For a detailed timeline of the Bakri family’s 18-year saga — which to this day remains unresolved and justice remains denied — see this report from Peace Now.
On April 3rd, the Israeli Civil Administration signed a military order to confiscate privately owned Palestinian land in the West Bank in order to build a new bypass road, to be called the “Al-Arroub/Lev Yehuda bypass road,” approved by the Israeli government in 2012. The Palestinian villages Beit Ummar and Halul, whose land was taken for the road, are expected to file objections to the confiscation..
While settlers claim the road is needed both for transportation and security reasons, construction of the road advances a far more important strategic objective for settlers: the establishment of a more direct route between Hebron-area settlements – particularly Kiryat Arba – and sovereign Israeli territory, without going through any Palestinian towns.
This is the second bypass road advanced by Israeli in the month of April; on April 9th, FMEP reported on the advancement of the Huwwara bypass road. Both of these new bypass roads are part of a 5-road package that Prime Minister Netanyahu, under immense pressure from the settler lobby, known as the Yesha Council, promised to build.
Peace Now explained:
“This expropriation is part of the government’s continued capitulation to the settlers to build bypass roads throughout the West Bank. The settlers know very well that without good roads the settlements will not be able to develop, but cynically demand they be built ‘for security reasons.’ In fact, the goal behind these roads is to expand the settlements and advance plans to annex the West Bank into Israel in order to prevent the chances of reaching a two-state solution.”
Settlers and the government say that the roads will be open to both Palestinian and Israeli traffic, but as Peace Now explains, “even if in some cases the Palestinians can benefit from these roads, they are not paved according to a planning conception of the Palestinian needs.” Indeed, bypass roads are not just oblivious to Palestinian needs; they are strategically located to constrict the growth of Palestinian villages, as explained at length by Americans for Peace Now. Moreover, history shows most bypass roads ultimately end up being settler-only routes, as B’Tselem extensively documented in its authoritative 2004 report, “Forbidden Roads: The Discriminatory West Bank Road Regime.”
OCHA: Palestinians in Downtown Hebron Suffer at Hands of Settlers & IDF; Israel Politicians: Time to Triple Number of Hebron Settlers
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) published a new report based on a survey of 280 Palestinian families living in the downtown part of Hebron know as “H-2”, under the direct control of the Israeli military and cheek-to-jowl with settlers. Accounting for 20% of land in Hebron, the downtown H-2 area is home to some 33,000 Palestinians and a few hundred of the most radical and violent Israeli settlers, whom the IDF protects through a policy of segregation, including keeping areas “sterile,” defined to me free of and off limits to Palestinians.
Palestinian H-2 resident and human rights defender Issa Amro wrote a powerful depiction of the apartheid reality in which he and other Palestinians live. Key findings of the new OCHA report, that give even more detail to that reality, include:
- When asked to list the three major concerns related to their current residence in H-2,
- 75% of the households surveyed cited harassment by Israeli forces;
- 67% cited social isolation [access to the area is generally limited to the residents, cutting them off from family and friends];
- 64% cited limited livelihood opportunities [Palestinian commercial life in the area has for the most part died]
- While only 2% of the households cited settler violence and harassment as a top concern, OCHA notes that the “general perception among Palestinians that most incidents of harassment involve, in one way or another, both settlers and soldiers, rendering the differentiation [between settlers and Israeli forces] meaningless.”
- When asked specifically about violence and harassment by settlers, almost 70% of the respondents reported that at least one member of their household has experienced an incident of settler violence or harassment since October 2015:
- 20% reported experiencing settler violence on a weekly basis;
- 80% of affected households reported psychological distress,
- 25% reported property damage;
- 18% reported physical injury.
Based on these findings, OCHA deemds H-2 a “coercive environment,” writing:
“In addition to settler violence and access restrictions, the lives of Palestinians in H2 have been severely affected by constant raids and incursions into their homes by Israeli forces, which often include the temporary takeover of parts of the homes. These policies and practices have generated a coercive environment, which has undermined the living conditions of Palestinians, including their security, sources of livelihoods, access to services, and family and social life. Thousands have been forced to leave the affected area.”
Against the backdrop of the extraordinary difficulties already facing Palestinians living in the center of Hebron, Israeli politicians are now looking to significantly boost the number of Israeli settlers living there. Speaking at the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, Bezalel Smotrich – who is jockeying to be the next Justice Minister – called to immediately triple the number of settlers living in the heart of Hebron, and keep increasing the settler population from there, promising:
“That would just be the start. Hebron is a large city. There is a lot of space here for many Jews to redeem this city, which will allow us to draw strength from the strong connection to the city of our forefathers.”
“We are praying that we will create a new government, a government that will declare sovereignty on Judea and Samaria. A government that with God’s help will show the world that there is no difference between Hebron and Beersheba. Hebron is what connects Jerusalem to Beersheba. Here in Hebron the nation of Israel connects to its roots. With God’s help we will declare that Judea and Samaria is an inseparable part of Israel.”
As negotiations to form the next ruling coalition get underway, the head of the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP), Bezalel Smotrich, issued a list of demands for Netanyahu’s Likud Party amounting to a checklist for the next phase of Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank. None of the URWP’s annexation-related demands are new ideas or efforts — a reminder that Israel has been discussing and promoting annexation policies since long before Netanyahu publicly announced it to the international community. The fact that they are not new and, indeed, have in the past generated significant support — coupled with Netanyahu’s newfound public enthusiasm for annexation and the Trump Administration’s Golan annexation trial balloon — suggests that Smotrich’s/URWP’s annexation-related demands are more than mere political gamesmanship. Rather, they should be examined carefully and treated as serious.
Before jumping into the list of demands, it’s worth recalling that the URWP is made up of three main parties: the national religious Jewish Home, the National Union/Tekuma party, and the Otzma Yehudit/Jewish Power party. It is also worth recalling that the latter party is the latest incarnation of the Kach/Kahane Chai party, which was banned in Israel for racism (and is a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization). Netanyahu personally brokered a deal to include Otzma Yehudit in the URWP coalition – a move so appalling that it garnered criticism, albeit veiled, from some of Netanyahu’s most ardent supporters in the United States.
Here are the demands:
Demand #1: Giving a simple majority in the Knesset the power to overrule the High Court of Justice. Smotrich demands that the government promote the “High Court override bill.” If this becomes law, it will allow the Knesset to re-enact legislation that had been struck down by Israel’s highest court by a simple majority vote, in effect turning rule of law into rule by the dictatorship of the majority. This bill is the extreme version of a longtime legislative priority of right-wing Israeli parties, who view the High Court as overly sympathetic to Palestinians, overly deferential to international law, and biased against Israeli settlers (they view the mere fact that Israel’s legal system distinguishes between sovereign Israel proper and the West Bank (which even according to Israel remains, legally speaking, land held under belligerent occupation) constitutes discrimination against settlers. Netanyahu has supported this initiative in the past, making it an all but guaranteed agenda item for the next government. The consequences of the bill will be profound. Since 1967, the High Court of Justice has been the court of first jurisdiction for cases related to Palestinians living in the West Bank, reflecting the extraordinariness of Israeli judges issuing, in effect, extra-territorial legal rulings. By empowering the Knesset (to which West Bank Palestinians are not entitled to elect representatives) to overrule the High Court with a bare majority vote, the rule of law in Israel will be wholly politicized – no doubt against Palestini.
Demand #2: Give URWP power to retroactively legalize illegal settler construction and to open the settlement floodgates. Smotrich demands the formation of a ministerial committee headed by a URWP member that would take over the implementation of plans to retroactive legalize all unauthorized settlement construction and outposts, entrenching even the most far-flung and isolated outposts and allowing for their expansion. Smotrich also wants this committee to take control of the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization and its efforts to settle Jews in all areas of the West Bank. Smotrich has previously championed a bill that would hand over a vast tracts of land in Area C of the West Bank to the Settlement Division. By taking control over the Settlement Division, the URWP-headed committee can accelerate this land transfer, opening up more West Bank land for more settlement construction.
Demand #3: Disband the Civil Administration. The Civil Administration is the body within the Israeli Defense Ministry that acts as the sovereign governing power over the West Bank. By shuttering the Civil Administration – the legal structure supporting and maintaining occupation created by Israel as a means to administer the West Bank as distinct entity from sovereign Israeli territory – any legal distinction between the two land areas will vanish, resulting in the annexation of the West Bank. Smotrich has been pushing this move for over a year. Under his plan, Israeli settlers in the West Bank would come under the full sovereignty of domestic Israeli institutions, while Palestinians would be ruled by “Regional Liaison administrations.”
Demand #4: Reverse the 2005 Disengagement Law. Smotrich demands that Israelis be allowed to return both to four northern West Bank settlements and to Gaza, from which settlers were removed in 20005 following the passage of Ariel Sharon’s Disengagement law. A Knesset bill to this effect has been circulating since June 2017, and various Knesset members including Smotrich have joined settlers protests in the West Bank demanding the right to return to the evacuated settlements there.
Demand #5: Diminish the power of the Israeli Attorney General. Smotrich demands that the new government limit the power and independence of the Israeli Attorney General, by forbidding him (or maybe someday, her) from arguing against the Israeli government in a court of law. The catalyst for this demand is the action by the current Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, who argued against the government regarding the “Regulation Law,” which Mandelblit said is unconstitutional and which is strongly supported by Smotrich and the Israeli right.
Demand #6: Get the State Comptroller under control. Smotrich demands new restrictions on the State Comptroller’s authority, seemingly an effort to stop the publication of embarrassing or politically awkward government-issued reports that reveal how taxpayer money is funneled to illegal settlement activities. The Times of Israel notes that Israeli Ombudsman Aharon Shapira has published reports over the past several years that have been heavily critical of several ministries funneling of funds toward illegal West Bank outposts.
In addition to the annexation-related demands, the URWP – which won only 5 seats in the Knesset but appears to be playing the role of kingmaker for the Netanyahu’s next coalition – is demanding that two of is members be named to powerful ministerial posts: Smotrich (leader of the National Union party and head of the URWP coalition) wants to be the next Justice Minister and, Rafi Peretz wants to be the next Education Minister. These two high-profile posts are being vacated by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, whose newly formed party failed to win any seats in the next Knesset. During her tenure as Justice Minister, Shaked undertook what she deemed a “legal revolution” aimed at completely erasing any distinction between the settlements/outposts and Israel proper, and, significantly, making it more difficult for Palestinians to access the only means of justice available to them under occupation by stripping the Israeli High Court of Justice of primary jurisdiction over land disputes.
As made clear by his personal history and political record – which led to Haaretz to dub him “the youthful face of unrepentant Jewish extremism” – Smotrich is an even more radical ideologue than Shaked. His unapologetic push for annexation and his eagerness to enshrine an apartheid system to permanently rule over the Palestinians leaves no question about how Smotrich will approach the role of Justice Minister, if he succeeds in securing that appointment.