EU hastily removes reference to ‘disputed lands’ from settlement condemnation

Brussels’ new foreign policy czar reissues statement denouncing West Bank construction, after first version could be read to imply it isn’t all illegal under international law

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

In this photo from January 1, 2019, men work on a new housing project in the West Bank settlement of Modin Illit. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
In this photo from January 1, 2019, men work on a new housing project in the West Bank settlement of Modin Illit. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The European Union’s new foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, on Thursday issued his first condemnation of the Israeli government’s plans to expand settlements in the West Bank.

An initial version of the statement, issued via his spokesman Peter Stano, urged Jerusalem to cease settlement activity on “occupied or disputed lands.”

A short while after the statement was issued, the EU published a second version that omitted the word “disputed,” now calling on the government in Jerusalem to “end all settlement activity on occupied territories and related actions.”

Stano said the earlier version’s reference to “disputed lands” was due to a “human error.”

While building settlements on occupied territory is considered illegal under international law, doing so on land that is merely disputed is not.

While the Israeli government has been known to call its hold on the West Bank a “belligerent occupation,” officials in Jerusalem have long argued that the area is disputed, since no state had sovereignty over it before Israel captured it in 1967, and that therefore settlements are not illegal.

Breaking with decades of American foreign policy, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced that “establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.”

A screenshot of the EU foreign policy chief’s initial statement on Israeli settlement expansions plan (EEAS)

Earlier this week, the Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing settlement construction green-lighted plans for nearly 2,000 Israeli homes in the West Bank. It also retroactively approved already existing constructions, “some of which were built on private Palestinian land,” according to the EU statement.

“This decision follows other settlement-related developments in recent months, including in particularly sensitive places such as East Jerusalem and Hebron,” it read.

“The European Union reiterates its clear position that all settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory are illegal under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace,” the statement added.

Stano went on to say that “violence by settlers on Palestinian civilians and their property has to be stopped and prevented.”

Brussels further stressed that it will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 lines, “including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by both sides.”

Concluding the statement, Stano reiterated that the EU will continue to support a resumption of a “meaningful process towards the two-state solution, the only realistic and viable way to fulfill the legitimate aspirations of both peoples.”

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell answers a question during a news conference in Brussels, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin vowed to continue to expand settlements, despite widespread condemnation.

However, Netanyahu’s office is blocking attempts to promote the construction of some 2,000 new homes in Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, the Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday.

The number of settlement homes advanced this week, 1,936, was significantly fewer than the 3,000-plus that Netanyahu boasted would be approved beyond the Green Line, when he spoke at a campaign event ahead of last month’s Likud leadership primary.

Only 786 homes of the number were granted final approval for construction, with the remaining 1,150 advancing only through an earlier planning stage. However, the total figure green-lighted in the two-day session was on par with the 2,084 homes that were approved on average at each of the quarterly sessions during 2019.

The vast majority of the homes that will eventually be constructed as a result of this week’s approvals will be located in settlements deep in the West Bank, as opposed to roughly 400 that will be built within the so-called blocs that most Israelis believe will be maintained in any peace deal.

Haresha outpost. (Courtesy)

Among the projects that received final approval for construction was one for 258 homes in the central West Bank outpost of Haresha, a move that retroactively legalized the community of roughly 50 families founded in 1998.

The government had failed to turn the illegal outpost into a fully recognized settlement for over two decades because Haresha’s access road is paved on private Palestinian land. However, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit submitted a legal opinion in November 2017 that authorized the expropriation, and the Justice Ministry announced a year later that it planned to build a tunnel that would reach the settlement. This came despite a ruling by Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut that said the state could not rely on a precedent set by one of her colleagues, off which Mandelblit based his opinion in favor of legalizing Haresha.

A project for 147 homes in the Jordan Valley’s Mitzpe Jericho and another for 204 homes in the central West Bank’s Shvut Rachel near Shiloh were also advanced through interim planning stages.

Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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