PM’s West Bank plan: 6,000 settlement homes, 700 Palestinian homes

Netanyahu pushing rare building permits in Area C under US pressure ahead of peace plan unveiling; right criticizes plan, but URWP’s Smotrich accepts it

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A plan introduced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for building permits in the Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank involves the approval of 6,000 settlement homes alongside 700 housing units for Palestinians, a government official confirmed on Tuesday.

After two lengthy meetings of the high-level security cabinet on Sunday and Monday, the ministerial body has yet to reach an agreement on the politically sensitive matter, a spokesman for one of the minister’s present said, confirming a Kan public broadcaster report.

Palestinians are rarely granted building permits in Area C and recent years have seen the total number of approvals remain in the single digits, compared to the thousands green-lighted for Israeli settlers.

It wasn’t clear whether the permits are for new construction or buildings currently slated for demolition.

Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s special adviser and son-in-law, leaves 10 Downing Street in London on June 4, 2019, on the second day of Trump’s three-day State Visit to the UK. (Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

The developments came days before a US delegation led by senior White House adviser Jared Kushner is slated to arrive in Israel and other countries in the region in order to promote US President Donald Trump’s administration’s peace plan.

Kan quoted ministers on Monday saying the matter was “extremely sensitive,” but didn’t say whether it was linked to the US peace plan. On Tuesday, Haaretz quoted political sources as estimating that Netanyahu was promoting the plan under pressure from Washington.

Some right-wing public officials criticized the plan, although a hawkish minister and a local settlement leader expressed support for it.

“For 20 years, there has been a plan that aims to take over and seize Area C by land development,” charged MK Moti Yogev of the United Right alliance of religious right-wing parties, in an interview with Army Radio. “The Palestinians have built structures on a massive scale, so we must enforce the law on this illegal construction.”

The West Bank town of Qalqilya is seen behind Israel’s security barrier. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“This is a reward for the Palestinian Authority, which is anyway changing the reality on the ground in Area C,” Channel 12 quoted unnamed right-wing sources as saying. “The leadership has been very selective about enforcing the law.”

However, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a staunchly hawkish member of the security cabinet, did not express objection to the plan in an interview with Kan.

Smotrich claimed there was no link between the permits for Palestinians and the settlement construction, adding that “Israel should and needs to approve Palestinian planning and construction only from a perspective of what is good for us.

“We have a commitment to Palestinians who lived in the area before 1994,” he said, referring to the 1994 Oslo Accords which defined certain areas of the West Bank as Area C, where most of the Jewish settlements are located and where Israel has full control over security and civilian matters.

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with National Union faction leader Betzalel Smotrich during a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party reacted to Smotrich’s interview by tweeting, “Now do you understand why we must have Otzma Yehudit in the Knesset?”

Also supporting the plan was the head of a settlement local council.

“I support the prime minister’s stance of giving Palestinians building permits in Judea and Samaria, but it must be done alongside strict and uncompromising enforcement against illegal construction,” Oded Revivi, head of the Efrat council, said in a statement.

Revivi called for “massive” settlement construction, saying for years there has largely been a freeze on permits. He added, though, that he had no desire to “strangle” Palestinians’ lives.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar told Kan that he didn’t know what happened in the cabinet discussion, but slammed the “out of control illegal Palestinian construction in Area C with European funding with the goal of strangling the settlements and taking over the land, and we must fight it.”

On Monday night, Yesha settlement umbrella council chairman Hananel Dorani said that “instead of fighting against the Palestinian Authority’s takeover of Area C and destroying the illegal construction that is rampant there, the prime minister is raising the possibility of surrendering to the phenomenon and approving the illegal construction, and perhaps even approving further construction. We fully oppose this and call on the ministers of the security cabinet to oppose this proposal.”

It was not immediately clear why Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, brought the plan to a security cabinet discussion, given that only his approval is required (followed by that of a bureaucratic body within the Defense Ministry) for the granting of building permits in the West Bank.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

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)

As Israel girds for elections in September, several right-wing parties have vowed to prevent Palestinian expansion in areas of the West Bank that they hope Israel will annex.

The last time a plan for Palestinian building permits was brought for its approval, the security cabinet froze it indefinitely. That plan related to the expansion of the Palestinian city of Qalqilya, just bordering the Green Line. Then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman had introduced the proposal in 2017, hoping to allow for the crowded Palestinian city surrounded almost entirely by the security barrier to expand within the space still available.

But after settler leaders got wind of the program, they launched a campaign to pressure ministers to refrain from “rewarding terror” and managed to bring the plan to its knees.

The Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee — the Defense Ministry bureaucratic body that authorizes West Bank construction — had been slated to convene this month to advance the latest batch of settlement building, as the subcommittee does four times a year. However, that meeting has yet to take place.

According to the Oslo Accords, Israel has full military and administrative control over Area C, which comprises about 60 percent of the West Bank’s territory.

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