Welcome to FMEP’s Weekly Settlement Report, covering everything you need to know about Israeli settlement activity this week.
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March 22, 2018
- New Light Rail for West Bank Settlers
- Settlers Complain that Government Employee Strike May Stall Settlement Construction
- Palestinians Slam Israel’s 2019 Budget for Entrenching Occupation & Discrimination
- Likud Candidates Run on Platform of Unrestrained Settlement Construction
- Bonus Reads
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Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz approved a plan for the first-ever light rail connecting Israeli settlements to Israel proper. Early planning has a stop at the Tapuah Junction, east of the with a far-flung settlement of Ariel which is located closer to the Jordan border than the Green Line. That site has been a flashpoint of violence for decades, in large part linked to its close proximity to settlements home of the most (famously) violent, extremist settlers in the West Bank (Kfar Tapuah and Yitzhar). The new rail line, which will literally bisect the northern West Bank, is anticipated to cost $1.16 billion (USD) and to take until 2025 to complete.
Minister Katz stressed the practical need for the rail line and the inconvenience of traffic congestion that settlers face under the current conditions, saying:
“The majority of Ariel residents work along the route of the [planned] train, which passes through the Barkan industrial zone. The new light rail will enable them to reach their workplaces, shopping centers, or entertainment venues quickly and safely.”
In response to the news, Ariel settlement mayor Eli Shaviro said, “I want to thank Minister Israel Katz and his team for working together to establish and promote the city as the capital of Samaria.”
Earlier this year, Israel passed a historic law to bring settlement universities and colleges under Israeli domestic law – a law that is, in effect, a form of de facto annexation. That law was designed to benefit a new, multi-million dollar medical school that is to open in Ariel University, funded in large part by U.S. settlement financier Sheldon Adelson.
As a reminder, the Ariel settlement is located in the heart of the northern West Bank, reaching literally to the midpoint between the Green Line and the Jordan border. The future of Ariel has long been one of the greatest challenges to any possible peace agreement, since any plan to attach Ariel to Israel will cut the northern West Bank into pieces.
Settler leaders are complaining about the repercussions of an employee strike at the Israeli Civil Administration (the branch of the Defense Ministry responsible for governing all affairs in the West Bank, including construction), which was launched on March 21, 2018. Strikers are demanding better benefits and improvements to employment conditions. The strike has led to a shut down of all public services for which the Civil Administration, including issuing construction permits for settlement projects (as well as, of course, issuing work permits, travel permits and all other documents that regulate most aspects of the lives of Palestinians, as required by Israel – meaning that thousands of Palestinians are out of work due to the strike).
Per a reported agreement with the United States, the Civil Administration meets on a quarterly basis to consider settlement construction plans; the next meeting is likely to be in April, but the strike – if unresolved – might necessitate delaying the meeting. An official at the Defense Ministry told The Times of Israel that the April meeting has not been cancelled yet.
Yesha Council Chairman Hananel Dorani wrote a letter to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beitenu) calling on him to “act immediately to allow the Civil Administration to function once again and prevent a technical freeze on construction and development in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley.”
Last week the Israeli Knesset passed a USD $140 billion budget for 2019, an unusually early passage that was rushed through in light of concerns about the coalition government crumbling (so far it has not). Approximately 11.5% of the budget (USD $21 billion) is allocated to the Defense Ministry.
Ministers with the Joint List (composed of Palestinian citizens of Israel) slammed the budget, saying it “perpetuates the occupation, intensifies settlement, and deepens discrimination and prejudices Arab citizens.”
Commenting on the budget, the NGO “Who Profits” wrote,
“The occupation is ranking high in Israel’s newly approved 2019 budget, with nearly a quarter of the $137 billion budget allocated to the army, to settlements and to so called internal security. Funds for new roads bypassing Palestinian communities have been approved, settlements will receive funds to speed up construction, and a 475 kilometer railway network connecting illegal settlements with Israel is on its way.”
With continued uncertainty about Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister, at least two candidates are preparing to enter the race to replace him, should an indictment come. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (Likud) is expected to declare his candidacy this week, and former MK Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) has already declared himself as a future candidate for the job.
The Times of Israel has a new profile of Sa’ar, including an interview in which he made clear that he intends to be far more permissive on settlement construction than Netanyahu. Among the many issues explored, Sa’ar called for unlimited construction in settlements and annexation of all existing settlements. Speaking at an event in London over the weekend, Sa’ar explained his views on settlements and the future of the West Bank with remarkable candor:
“There is no two-state solution; there is at most a two-state slogan [note: this wording is remarkably similar to what now-US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman wrote in Aug 2016: “There has never been a “two-state solution” – only a “two-state narrative.”]. It is not for nothing that 25 years of negotiations on the basis of this idea have not brought us closer to peace, security, or stability. The establishment of a Palestinian state a few miles away from Ben-Gurion Airport and Israel’s major population centers would create a security and demographic danger to Israel…I am convinced that 10 years from today, at the most, [Israeli] law will be applied [to Israeli settlements]. Maybe much sooner than that. Because the current situation cannot possibly go on like this for a long time….But let’s assume there is a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Who can guarantee us that this territory would not be flooded by Palestinians? After all [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] says he wants to bring in masses of refugees…The [demographic] balance between Jews and Arabs in the space between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river would quickly turn to our detriment.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s intentions to run for the Knesset have been clear for some time. As Terrestrial Jerusalem founder Danny Seidemann recently explained in analyzing Barkat’s inflammatory move to tax church properties in Jerusalem:
“Barkat’s defiant mood is also likely linked to his desire to attract larger support for himself, personally, within the Likud party. Like all Israeli politicians, Barkat knows that taking hardline, aggressive stances on issues related to Jerusalem has traditionally been a surefire way to gain popularity among the Israeli right-wing.”
Barkat’s hardline stances are not limited to tax issues. Over the past year alone, Barkat has overseen the opening of the settlement floodgates in East Jerusalem, including efforts to move forward with projects in the Givat Hamatos, Atarot, and Gilo settlements, the construction of the settler-run Kedem Center and cable car project in the Silwan neighborhood, the approval of a settler-run zipline over Jabal al-Mukaber, the approval of plans for the Nof Zion settlement enclave also in Jabal al-Mukaber to triple in size, the eviction of the Shamasneh family in Sheikh Jarrah and approval of several settlement projects there, and more. This is in addition to the emergence of the “Greater Jerusalem” Bill, which seeks to annex 19 settlements into the Jerusalem municipality while simultaneously excising three Palestinian neighborhoods.
Also noteworthy, in the context of his recent visit to Washington, D.C. for the AIPAC policy conference, Barkat briefed the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security about the upcoming relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. That briefing can be viewed online.