Israel advances largest batch of settlement homes since Trump took office

As PM makes pre-election promise to apply sovereignty to settlements, Defense Ministry body green-lights plans for over 3,600 units beyond Green Line; 1,226 of them get final OK

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

The Efrat settlement in the Etzion Bloc, November 27, 2018. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
The Efrat settlement in the Etzion Bloc, November 27, 2018. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing settlement construction has advanced plans for over 3,600 West Bank homes, a spokeswoman for the agency told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

The Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee cleared the majority of the plans through an earlier planning stage known as “deposit” during its meeting last Thursday, and 1,226 homes received final approval for construction throughout the West Bank, in a session that took place shortly before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he planned to extend Israeli sovereignty to all settlements if he wins the upcoming elections.

Under unofficial settlement guidelines coordinated with the White House when US President Donald Trump took office, Israel agreed that the Civil Administration committee would meet once every three months instead of once every month. Whereas past sessions have seen the advancement of 1,000 to 2,000 homes, the 3,659 on the docket last Thursday represented the largest batch of homes advanced since Trump took office — itself a period of Israeli growth beyond the Green Line in comparison to the eight years under Barack Obama.

Nearly 1,200 of the homes advanced will be located well beyond the Green Line in isolated settlements such as Shilo, Elon Moreh, Rehelim, Mitzpe Jericho and Nokdim.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants an olive tree at the Netiv Ha’avot neighborhood in the Elazar settlement in the West Bank, on January 28, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Also advanced through the deposit stage was a plan for 720 homes in the central West Bank town of Haresha, a move that retroactively legalizes the outpost of roughly 50 families founded in 1998. The government failed to turn the community 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 in December that it plans to build an underground tunnel that will reach the settlement.

Final approval for construction was given for projects in the more “consensus” settlements of Etz Efrayim, Givat Ze’ev, Karnei Shomron, Beitar Illit and Ma’ale Adumim, which all are located west of Israel’s West Bank security fence (or west of where the wall is planned to be built).

A plan for 289 units was given final approval for construction in the Alon neighborhood of the Kfar Adumim settlement. The Jewish community is slated to further expand to eventually include land where the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar currently resides. Last May, the High Court of Justice authorized the state’s plans to demolish the hamlet, which was built without the necessary permits. Residents argue that such permits are almost never issued to Palestinians in the West Bank. Netanyahu vowed on Saturday that the hamlet will be razed imminently, though he has made the same promise several times over the past 18 months.

Responding to Thursday’s settlement approvals, the Peace Now settlement watchdog said: “Netanyahu has decided, officially or unofficially, to annex the West Bank to Israel, otherwise one cannot explain the promotion of thousands of units for Israelis in the occupied territories.”

Haresha outpost. (Courtesy)

“The construction of the settlements only makes it harder to end the occupation and to get to a two states peace agreement and is bad for the Israeli interest to remain a democratic and secured state,” the left-wing NGO concluded.

While the Yesha settlement umbrella organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the approvals, the Haresha secretariat released a statement thanking the relevant authorities for launching the legalization process for its community and urged the government to swiftly implement the plan.

Campaigning over the last week amid predictions that the rival Blue and White party is on the verge of an electoral victory,  Netanyahu has sought to woo voters from other right-wing parties such as the New Right and Union of Right Wing Parties. He has asserted that if Likud does not come out of Tuesday’s elections as the largest party, it will not form the next government and the needs of settlers will be forgotten, regardless of how large the other satellite right-wing parties might be.

He appeared to sharpen the message on Saturday in vowing to annex parts of the West Bank if given another term.

If reelected on Tuesday, Netanyahu told Channel 12, “I am going to apply Israeli sovereignty [to the West Bank settlements], but I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements. From my perspective, each of those settlement points is Israeli.”

Also Sunday, the premier invited settler leaders to his office for an “emergency” meeting. Efrat Local Council chairman Oded Revivi said Netanyahu relayed the message that he does not believe that he currently has a bloc large enough to form a coalition given that Zehut chairman Moshe Feiglin has refused to place himself in either the left- or right-wing camp.

Revivi said that Israeli local leaders would be mobilizing over the coming 48 hours “in order to ensure the future of the settlement movement.”

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