Britain condemns Israel’s ‘ill-judged’ West Bank land grab

Britain condemns Israel’s ‘ill-judged’ West Bank land grab

UK foreign secretary says appropriation of nearly 1,000 acres near Bethlehem is ‘an obstacle to peace’

An outpost established in the Etzion Bloc after the killing of three Israeli teens in June (photo credit: Gush Etzion Regional Council)
An outpost established in the Etzion Bloc after the killing of three Israeli teens in June (photo credit: Gush Etzion Regional Council)

The United Kingdom on Monday condemned Israel’s decision to appropriate 1,000 acres of West Bank land, calling it an “ill-judged decision” and urging the government to reverse it.

“The UK deplores the Israeli government’s expropriation of 988 acres of land around the settlement of Etzion near Bethlehem,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement. “This is a particularly ill-judged decision that comes at a time when the priority must be to build on the ceasefire in Gaza. It will do serious damage to Israel’s standing in the international community.”

Reiterating London’s position that West Bank settlements are illegal under international law, the Foreign Office said that such moves “present an obstacle to peace and take us further away from a two state solution.”

“All efforts should currently be focused on securing a durable ceasefire in Gaza and the lasting peace that the Palestinian and Israeli people deserve. We strongly urge the government of Israel to reverse this decision,” Hammond said.

The statement came a day after an American official panned the decision as “counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.”

On Sunday, the IDF’s Civil Administration, the military government in the West Bank, announced that per instructions from Jerusalem “4,000 dunams at (the settlement of) Gvaot is declared as state land,” and said concerned parties had 45 days to appeal.

The Palestinian Authority decried Israel’s announcement on Sunday, with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat calling for diplomatic action.

“The Israeli government is committing various crimes against the Palestinian people and their occupied land,” he told AFP. “The international community should hold Israel accountable as soon as possible for its crimes and raids against our people in Gaza and the ongoing Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”

PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said the announcement would cause the situation in the region to deteriorate further, and added that settlements in general are illegal, Israel Radio reported.

Critics said the move to expropriate the land near Gvaot in the Gush Etzion region, south of Jerusalem, was “a stab in the back” of the Palestinian leadership.

Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Major-General Yoav Mordechai said that the move comes “as the continuation of the political leadership’s directives given at the end of Operation Brother’s Keeper.”

The Israeli army declared that there was no claim of Palestinian ownership on the land in question, the Ynet news site reported.

The move was described as a response to the killing in June of three Israeli teenagers in the Etzion Bloc.

Israel accused Hamas of being behind the June 12 abduction and killing of Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gil-ad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19. The three were last seen at a hitchhiking post outside the settlement of Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem. The abduction sparked Operation Brother’s Keeper, a massive search to locate the teenagers and a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, with hundreds arrested. The bodies of the three teens were found near Hebron on June 30, and a number of Israeli hardliners set up unauthorized West Bank outposts in response.

The Etzion settlement council welcomed Sunday’s announcement, and said it was the prelude to expansion of the current Gvaot settlement.

It “paves the way for the new city of Gvaot,” a statement said.

“The goal of the murderers of those three youths was to sow fear among us, to disrupt our daily lives and to call into doubt our right to the land,” it said. “Our response is to strengthen settlement.”

Yariv Oppenheimer, the head of dovish group Peace Now, strongly criticized the move and accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of having no real diplomatic plan.

“The expropriation is a stab in the back for Mahmoud Abbas and the moderates in the Palestinian Authority, proving again that violence delivers Israeli concessions while nonviolence results in settlement expansion,” Oppenheimer said. “The Israeli government has once again proven that Netanyahu has no diplomatic horizon.”

The Gvaot settlement is currently home to a number of families and a winery.

Mordechai explained that the legality of changing the land’s status was fully reviewed before approval was given.

The three missing teens, from left to right: Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel (Photo credit: Courtesy)
The three murdered teens, from left to right: Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel (photo credit: Courtesy)

“The process was enabled after a detailed check by the Blue Line Team of the Civil Administration,” he said, referring to the special group of legal experts and surveyors tasked with reviewing and defining the exact locations of land Israel has appropriated in the West Bank.

“The decision to appropriate 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) and make them state land is unprecedented and changes the reality in the region of the Etzion Bloc,” Oppenheimer said, adding that there has not been such a large land seizure since the 1980s.

Peace Now official Hagit Ofran told AFP that the legal basis for such land confiscation was an 1858 ruling by the region’s Ottoman rulers.

AFP contributed to this report.

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