Israel said planning to advance settlement building before Biden enters office

Defense Ministry panel reportedly set to convene in coming two weeks on building approvals in West Bank, East Jerusalem, in last gasp of Trump administration

View of caravans in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood of Jerusalem, on July 5, 2016. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)
View of caravans in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood of Jerusalem, on July 5, 2016. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

Israel is expected to greenlight settlement construction ahead of the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden, according to a television report on Saturday night.

The Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing settlement construction is expected to convene in the next two weeks — for the first time since the November US election — to advance plans for building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

The Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee could meet as soon as Thursday, according to the report, which did not specify how many settlement houses were up for approval.

Biden’s administration is widely expected to restore Washington’s stance against settlement building. During an official visit by then-vice president Biden in 2010, the Interior Ministry announced that 1,600 housing units would be built in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. The declaration embarrassed Biden, as Washington was opposed to Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.

New homes under construction in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, November 2015. (Lior Mizrahi/ Flash90)

Biden fumed at the time, saying in a statement that the new construction “undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.” The project, which later gained the epithet “the Biden Plan,” was eventually put on hold, although anti-settlement groups claimed that paperwork for the scheme was continually advanced in the following years.

But in November, the Jerusalem municipality reportedly approved the construction of 108 housing units in Ramat Shlomo. A Jerusalem municipal source told Kan that the local planning and construction committee will soon advance further housing in Ramat Shlomo, “hopefully before the swearing-in ceremony” for Biden, to be held January 20.

The Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee typically meets four times a year. In October, after a seven-month hiatus, the panel advanced over 5,000 settlement homes in a two-day session. Several hundred of the approvals were for homes already constructed illegally, which will be retroactively regulated.

The approvals brought the annual total of housing units advanced to 12,159, in what the Peace Now settlement watchdog said was a record-breaking figure that beat out last year’s number by nearly 4,000.

US President-elect Joe Biden speaks after the Electoral College formally elected him as president, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, December 14, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The vast majority of plans advanced are for settlements deep in the West Bank, outside the large blocs, that Israel would likely not hold onto as part of land swaps in any realistic future peace deal, Peace Now said.

The panel had not convened in over seven months, in what settler leaders complained was a de-facto building freeze sanctioned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, against the backdrop of brewing normalization agreements — since signed — with the UAE and Bahrain.

Given that delay, Peace Now speculated that the Defense Ministry body might meet once again before the end of 2020, allowing for the possibility of the further padding of the record-breaking total of plan advancements.

Prior to October, the last time Israel promoted the construction of new homes beyond the Green Line was in late February, when it 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 2,200 housing units for Jews in the nearby Har Homa neighborhood.

A general view, showing the Israeli settlement of Har Bracha near the West Bank village of Burin, August 6, 2019. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

Netanyahu also announced plans to build in a strip of land in the West Bank East of Jerusalem called E1, effectively linking the capital to Ma’ale Adumim.

Critics say building in the Givat Hamatos and Har Homa areas of the southeast of the capital will effectively cut Palestinian neighborhoods in the city from Bethlehem in the West Bank.

Most of the international community considers settlement construction a violation of international law. In November 2019, by contrast, the US State Department said it had concluded that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in November became the first top American diplomat to visit a settlement in the West Bank.

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