Israel advances plans for nearly 1,800 new settlement homes days before election

Defense Ministry panel meeting comes less than two months after previous one, marking increase in frequency

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

The Eli settlement in the central West Bank (Courtesy: Dror Etkes)
The Eli settlement in the central West Bank (Courtesy: Dror Etkes)

The Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing settlement construction green-lit plans for nearly 1,800 Israeli homes in the West Bank on Thursday.

Of the 1,739 homes advanced by the Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee, 1,036 were cleared through an early planning stage known as “deposit” and 703 received final approval for construction throughout the West Bank.

Thursday’s session came less than two months after the previous one, marking an increase in the frequency of the committee’s meetings, which, based on unofficial rules instituted upon US President Donald Trump’s 2017 entry into the White House, have only taken place four times a year.

A Civil Administration spokesman said the political echelon is responsible for convening the High Planning Subcommittee, but a spokesman for Defense Minister Naftali Bennett did not respond to The Times of Israel’s request for comment. Shabtay Bendet from the Peace Now settlement watchdog refrained from concluding that the more frequent meetings marked a change in Israeli policy, speculating that they likely had more to do with the Netanyahu government’s efforts to cater to right-wing voters, particularly residents of West Bank settlements, ahead of next week’s election.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan (R) raises a glass with the members of the Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee after the Defense Ministry body authorized the construction of a new industrial zone in his municipality on February 27, 2020. (Roy Hadi)

The vast majority of the homes that will eventually be constructed as a result of Thursday’s approvals will be located in settlements deep in the West Bank, as opposed to roughly 200 that will be built within the so-called blocs that most Israelis believe will be maintained in any peace deal.

According to the Trump peace plan, Israel will be able to annex every single settlement in the West Bank, meaning Thursday’s approvals would not impact the viability of the proposal in any way.

Among the projects given final approval for construction was a plan for 620 homes in the central West Bank settlement of Eli. Substantial development of the town had been frozen for decades due to petitions in the High Court of Justice by Palestinians claiming that the town was built on their land. The court officially sided with the settlers last week, allowing for the settlement to move forward with plans to expand.

Other plans cleared included a project for 534 homes in the nearby settlement of Shvut Rachel, which was advanced through the earlier deposit stage and a project for what will become the largest Israeli industrial zone beyond the Green Line near the northern Palestinian city of Qalqilya.

A construction site at Shvut Rachel in the West Bank on May 1, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Settler leaders lauded the approvals, thanking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bennett for advancing their efforts beyond the Green Line.

Just two days earlier, Netanyahu announced that he had ordered the promotion of a plan for some 3,500 homes in the contentious E1 area in the West Bank that has long been frozen due to objections from governments around the world supportive of a two-state solution.

The project between East Jerusalem and the Ma’ale Adumim city-settlement would effectively bisect the western West Bank, substantially curbing the possibility for development in the center of a future Palestinian state if one were to be created.

On Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office ordered that 12 illegal outposts in the West Bank be connected to the state’s official power grid.

Last week, Netanyahu announced that he had lifted restrictions on the construction of the controversial Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem, saying that 3,000 homes would be built for Jewish residents there, in addition to another 2,200 housing units for Jews in the nearby Har Homa neighborhood.

The plan for construction in Givat Hamatos was first brought forward in 2012, earning widespread condemnation in the international community over its cutting off of the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Safafa and Sharafat from the West Bank, in a manner that critics said placed a nail in the coffin of a two-state solution based roughly on the pre-1967 lines.

The E1 and Givat Hamatos announcements sparked fury from capitals around Europe and the Middle East, which issued statements of condemnation. On Thursday, ambassadors to Israel from eight European countries  — Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK — met with Netanyahu’s deputy national security adviser, Reuven Azar, and unanimously expressed their objections to the two projects beyond the Green Line.

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