Israel advances plans for 7,000 new settler homes, places E1 project back on docket

Figure green-lit by panel this week is largest ever; hearing rescheduled to adjudicate objections to repeatedly delayed plan that would bisect Palestinian contiguity in West Bank

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

File: An Israeli settler looks at the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Adumim from the E1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
File: An Israeli settler looks at the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Adumim from the E1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Israel is seeking to once again advance the highly controversial E1 settlement project that would bisect Palestinian contiguity in the West Bank, as it also green-lit plans Thursday for more than 7,000 new settlement homes, the largest number ever authorized in one sitting.

The far-reaching moves to further entrench Israel’s presence beyond the Green Line comes just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government neared its two-month anniversary. The series of agreements that laid the foundation for the coalition’s establishment pledged to significantly expand settlements and included a commitment to annex large parts of the West Bank where the government’s guiding principles declare the “Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right” to live and develop.

Netanyahu holds a veto over such annexation efforts, which he is expected to utilize due to the belief that such a move would shut the door on an elusive normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia. But critics say the government is still moving forward with de-facto annexation, including through Thursday’s decision to hand far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich authority over the Civil Administration, the Defense Ministry body that authorizes settlement construction.

The Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee convened for the first time this week since the establishment of the new government, advancing plans for 7,157 new settler homes. The body is slated to publish housing tenders for some 2,000 settlement homes by the end of the week as well.

Among the plans advanced on Wednesday and Thursday were projects for 5,257 homes in 35 settlements that were cleared through the earlier “deposit” planning stage, along with 1,900 homes that received final approval for construction. The figure approved through those two stages this week eclipsed the number of settlement homes advanced in the entirety of 2022 (4,427) and 2021 (3,645).

Among the projects advanced this week were ones located in four illegal outposts — Mevo’ot Yericho, Nofei Nehemia, Pnei Kedem and Nativ Ha’avot — which will be formally legalized upon authorization of the final planning stage. The latter 433-home project was advanced as compensation for Netiv Ha’avot settlers after authorities demolished 15 homes that were found to have been built on private Palestinian land.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Finance Minister and Minister in the Defense Minstry Bezalel Smotrich (second from right), and with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (third from right), after they signed an agreement transferring authorities for civilian affairs in the West Bank to Smotrich. (Courtesy: Office of the Finance Minister)

Those outposts do not include the nine that the government announced earlier this month that it would legalize in response to a series of terror attacks in East Jerusalem — a decision that ushered in a flood of global condemnations.

While most of the international community considers all settlement activity illegal, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land. However, outposts are sometimes established with the state’s tacit approval, and successive governments have sought to legalize at least some of the 100-plus unrecognized communities as a result.

Of the projects advanced through the earlier deposit planning stage were ones for 408 homes in Ma’ale Amos, northeast of Hebron, for 308 homes in nearby Nokdim, for 486 homes in Givat Ze’ev north of Jerusalem, for 627 homes in nearby Kochav Yaakov, for 356 homes in the nearby Adam settlement and for 346 homes in Mitzpe Yericho deep in the Judean desert.

Projects that received final approval for construction included a plan for 380 homes in Smotrich’s northern West Bank Kedumim settlement, 212 homes in the nearby Rechelim settlement, 210 homes in the Mevo Horon settlement and for 179 homes in the Einav settlement.

As the High Planning Subcommittee convened on Thursday, the Civil Administration subcommittee that hears legal objections to settlement projects re-scheduled a hearing to adjudicate rebuttals to a settlement project in an area known as E1 for March 27. The plan to build 3,412 homes in a new neighborhood of Ma’ale Adumim has been characterized by critics as a “doomsday” settlement as it would divide the West Bank into northern and southern regions and prevent the development of a Palestinian metropolis that connects East Jerusalem to Bethlehem and Ramallah, which the Palestinians have long hoped would serve as the foundation of their future state.

The previous government sought to hold the objections committee hearing on at least three occasions, but agreed to put it off each time amid pressure from the US and European countries.

A map of the housing projects Israel has planned in the E1 corridor. (Peace Now)

If the hearing on E1 is indeed held next month and the objections are waived, as such petitions often are, the project will still require several additional approvals before ground can be broken — a process that generally takes months, if not years. Still, each step in the process makes such projects more difficult to prevent — and clearing the E1 plan through the objection stage would mark a major win for settler leaders.

In a statement responding to Thursday’s development, the Peace Now settlement watchdog claimed the government was “destroying any chance for a political solution and peace.”

It claimed the E1 plan’s “sole purpose is to prevent a territorial continuum for a future Palestinian state” and said the government was “spitting in the face of the US” after it pledged earlier this week to halt the advancement of settlement projects for several months — though that commitment did not include this week’s plans and the Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee traditionally convenes once every three months regardless.

“This annexation government seems to continue to act according to a systematic plan that drags us into an apartheid reality,” Peace Now added.

Yossi Dagan, a settler leader in the northern West Bank, welcomed the retroactive approval of 118 homes in the Nofei Nehemia outpost in located within his Samaria Regional Council, after a 20-year struggle. “Great news for Samaria, for settlement and for the entire nation of Israel,” he said, using the biblical name for the region.

Shlomo Neeman, chairman of the Yesha umbrella council of settler mayors, declared the approvals “a tremendous boost.”

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