2023 sets record for settlement construction and outpost legalization – watchdog

New government approved the construction of 12,855 new housing units throughout the West Bank so far this year, says Peace Now

View of the West Bank settlement of Eli, January 17, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
View of the West Bank settlement of Eli, January 17, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The year 2023 has set an all-time record for settlement construction in the West Bank and for the legitimization of illegal outposts, according to the Peace Now settlement watchdog.

Since the beginning of the year, the government has legalized 22 settlements that were previously considered illegal outposts, based on figures provided by Peace Now to Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site. During the seven months since the start of the year, more outposts have been legalized than during entire past years, the group said.

According to Israeli law, those outposts are now considered legal residential areas, although they are still considered illegal by international law, as are all other West Bank settlements.

The year began with the swearing-in of the new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the appointment of Bezalel Smotrich as both finance minister and as minister within the Defense Ministry, with authority over civilian issues in the West Bank.

Among the newly legalized outposts is Homesh, a former settlement in the northern West Bank that had been evacuated when Israel pulled out of the Gaza strip in 2005, and that was reestablished as an outpost in recent times. This was possible because the current government repealed the 2005 law for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which also included the evacuation of four settlements in the northern West Bank, including Homesh.

The Supreme Court last Wednesday upheld the repeal, rejecting a petition by the Yesh Din rights group, on the grounds that the outpost has been removed from private Palestinian land and transferred to Israeli state land.

Head of the Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan (right) affixes a mezuzah to the new yeshiva in Homesh, May 29, 2023. (Roi Hadi)

Another illegal outpost that was authorized this year is Evyatar, also in the northern West Bank, which has been set up and evacuated multiple times since 2012 and has become a symbol for settlement supporters. It was finally approved this year under heavy pressure by Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

In newly sanctioned outposts, buildings must be legalized too

Four out of the 22 settlements sanctioned by the current government have also received retroactive planning authorizations from the Civil Administration in the West Bank, after illegal construction had already taken place.

Among these is Pnei Kedem, located in the Judean Desert and home to far-right Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Zman Israel revealed in March that Rothman’s house was built illegally and has been subject to a demolition order for at least eight years.

Ten of the authorized outposts have not yet received planning permits, and are therefore in a legal limbo whereby they are considered legal settlements according to Israeli law but the buildings inside them are illegal.

View of the Jewish settlement of Eli, in the West Bank on January 17, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90

Growth in new illegal outposts

According to Peace Now, this year also saw an increase in the establishment of new illegal outposts. Such outposts are usually evacuated by the IDF and the police shortly after they are built, but the group said that at least five of the outposts established in 2023 are still standing.

Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, about 160 outposts have not been evacuated, on average five per year. This number has already been reached in the first half of 2023. Israeli authorities do not provide information about illegal outposts, and the Civil Administration did not responded to inquiries by Zman Israel on the new ones.

Record year for construction approvals in existing settlements

The current government has also issued a record number of West Bank construction permits compared to the years since the signing of the Oslo agreements, according to Peace Now.

The group said that the Higher Planning Council, which approves construction projects in the West Bank, convened three times in 2023 and approved the building of 12,855 housing units across the Green Line. In addition, tenders were published for the construction of 1,289 units that had already been approved.

At the last meeting of the council on June 26, approximately 5,700 housing units were approved in Ma’ale Adumim, Giv’at Zeev, Ariel, Beitar Illit and in a series of smaller settlements. In the first six months of the year, a record was broken that had been set throughout the whole of 2020, when 12,000 housing units were approved, according to Peace Now.

Normally, between 1,000 and 8,500 units a year are approved on average, the group noted.

Left-wing activists marching toward Homesh, July 7, 2023, holding a sign reading ‘Until Homesh is dismantled’ in Hebrew and Arabic. (Courtesy Peace Now)

Zionist response, or a source of friction and violence?

Shlomo Ne’eman, head of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, thanked the government for advancing the settlement enterprise.

Reacting to the permits issued in the last meeting of the Higher Planning Council, he declared that “particularly in these difficult days, this is the proper Zionist response to all those who seek our help. We will continue to work with the ministers and the planning authorities in order to pursue the construction work.”

Yoni Mizrahi, head of the settlement monitoring team at Peace Now, told Zman that “Smotrich’s position allows him to operate in Area C of the West Bank [areas under Israeli civilian and military control] in conditions similar to a de facto annexation. He manages to control the army’s activities as he wishes and sets up settlements throughout the West Bank. The longer he remains in the role, the more problematic the reality on the ground will become.

“As the settlements draw closer to Palestinian towns and villages, especially the illegal outposts, the more the friction between the two populations we will see, and with it the violence,” he added. “Violence by settlers has always received the support of parts of the right wing and the government.”

But sources in the Yesha Council denied that there is an increase in construction. A council representative who spoke told Zman that “[construction] permits have only increased because they had been frozen under the previous government. But it takes a long time before construction activity on the ground actually starts. The projects that are being built now were authorized years ago.”

Smotrich’s office did not respond to inquiries by Zman.

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