Touring a West Bank settlement, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman defended his proposal to allow Palestinians to expand the city of Qalqilya Wednesday, ahead of a cabinet meeting on the plan scheduled for that night.

Qalqilya, which is surrounded on three sides by Israel’s security fence, is the West Bank’s most densely populated Palestinian city. Under Liberman’s plan, the Palestinian Authority would be allowed to double the size of the city by expanding into land that is currently under Israeli control, in a part of the West Bank known as Area C.

The proposal was approved last year as part of Liberman’s policy of “carrots and sticks,” in which Palestinians would be rewarded for maintaining calm and swiftly punished for attacks and other disturbances to day-to-day life in the West Bank and Gaza.

Amid recent pushback against the Qalqilya proposal by some members of the right-wing coalition government, the issue was brought back on the docket, with the possibility of having it overturned.

The Palestinian city of Qalqilya (top) and the Israeli security barrier (bottom), file photo (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The Palestinian city of Qalqilya (top) and the Israeli security barrier (bottom), file photo (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

During his tour of the West Bank settlement of Maale Shomron on Wednesday, Liberman described the ongoing fight over the plan as one aspect of a much larger ideological debate.

“This is a dispute within the right wing, between a responsible and serious right wing and a messianic and populist right wing,” Liberman said, making a veiled reference to coalition rival Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party.

“It starts with the question of if we want a Jewish state or a binational one, and goes to [the issue of] girls serving in the IDF,” he added. “Qalqilya is only an excuse.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett leads a faction meeting of his Jewish Home party at the Knesset on June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett leads a faction meeting of his Jewish Home party at the Knesset on June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The defense minister’s visit to Maale Shomron was organized by Samaria Regional Council Chairman Yossi Dagan, who vocally opposes the Qalqilya proposal.

During the tour, Dagan called on Liberman to reconsider his support for the plan, which is set to be debated in the cabinet Wednesday evening, saying anyone who promotes these plans is advancing only the interests of Palestinians.

Liberman also disputed Dagan’s claim that 14,000 Palestinian homes would be built under the Qalqilya plan, saying the number would in fact be closer to 6,000, which he said would be built over the next 18 years.

A map of the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. The colored area represents reported plans for expansion (Courtesy of Samaria Regional Council)

A map of the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. The colored area represents reported plans for expansion (Courtesy of Samaria Regional Council)

The defense minister also told the settler leaders on the tour that the land was private Palestinian land.

“We’re talking about 300-400 homes a year, that’s the whole story,” he said. “So I recommend that we really speak about the facts and be aware of the reality, and not just slogans.”

Dagan, meanwhile, argued that the exact number of units wasn’t important.

“Multiplying the terror city of Qalqilya endangers the residents of Judea and Samaria,” Dagan said, using the West Bank’s biblical name.

Dagan’s designation of Qalqilya as a “terror city” was an odd one, as there have been no terror attacks carried out by residents of Qalqilya in the past two years, save possibly for one case in which an attack was attempted. However it was not clear if the assailant was from Qalqilya or had merely resided there temporarily.

The defense minister disputed Dagan’s assertion that expanding the city threatened Israel’s security, saying his “carrots and sticks” policy was vetted by defense officials and “received full backing, from a security standpoint, by the chief of staff, the head of Military Intelligence, the head of the [Central] Command and the head of the West Bank Division.”

Qalqiliya, which skirts the 1967 Green Line, was once a regular shopping destination for Israelis. Palestinians would cross into Israel freely for jobs, and some locals can still fondly recall leisurely riding their bikes to Israeli beaches on the Mediterranean. But all that changed after the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, when a campaign of suicide bombings in Israel prompted tougher security measures and eventually a barrier that cut the West Bank off with walls and sophisticated fences.

Two of the four zebras that were transferred from the Ramat Gan safari to the Qalqilya zoo on January 21, 2017 (COGAT )

Two of the four zebras that were transferred from the Ramat Gan safari to the Qalqilya zoo on January 21, 2017 (COGAT )

It’s now a sleepy city that produces agriculture and not much else. It’s mostly known for housing a popular West Bank zoo, a menagerie decrepit by Western standards that is famous for the taxidermy of its deceased animals. Earlier this year, a caged bear bit off the arm of a Palestinian child who apparently tried to feed it.

With the backing of the military, the Israeli cabinet approved the expansion plan last year. But once settlers — angry that their own housing construction permits had been limited under US pressure — got wind of it, they launched an angry campaign against Liberman and Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, who heads COGAT, the defense body for Palestinian civilian affairs. Settlers accused them of being soft on Palestinian violence and overstepping their authority.

Settler leaders have derided the plan as a “reward for terror.” They also noted that Qalqiliya sits next to a major Israeli highway near the country’s narrowest point, just 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the Mediterranean Sea, and could prove a launching ground toward Israel’s heartland.

Several cabinet ministers have since claimed they didn’t know what they voted for, and Netanyahu has said he couldn’t recall the details.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has insisted that the cabinet debated and voted for the plan. “Whoever says that he doesn’t remember is lying,” Kahlon said.

The AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.