US urges Israel to reverse West Bank land seizure
American official says decision to expand Gvaot settlement in wake of three Jewish teens’ killing is harmful to peace process
The US has called for Israel to cancel its plan to appropriate about 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank, close to the spot where three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in June.
“We have long made clear our opposition to continued settlement activity,” a US official told Reuters. “This announcement, like every other settlement announcement Israel makes… is counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.”
“We urge the government of Israel to reverse this decision,” the official said in Washington.
Earlier Sunday, the Palestinian Authority decried Israel’s announcement, with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called for diplomatic action against Israel.
“The Israeli government is committing various crimes against the Palestinian people and their occupied land,” he told AFP.
“The international community should hold Israel accountable as soon as possible for its crimes and raids against our people in Gaza and the ongoing Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”
PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said the announcement would cause the situation in the region to deteriorate further, and added that settlements in general are illegal, Israel Radio reported.
The military announced the move on Sunday.
“On the instructions of the political echelon… 4,000 dunams at (the settlement of) Gvaot is declared as state land,” the army department charged with administering civil affairs in occupied territory said. Concerned parties have 45 days to appeal, it said.
Critics said the move to expropriate the land near Gvaot in the Gush Etzion region, south of Jerusalem, was “a stab in the back” of the Palestinian leadership.
Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Major-General Yoav Mordechai said that the move comes “as the continuation of the political leadership’s directives given at the end of Operation Brother’s Keeper.”
The Israeli army declared that there was no claim of Palestinian ownership on the land in question, the Ynet news site reported.
Israel accused Hamas of being behind the June 12 abduction and killing of Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gil-ad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19. The three were last seen at a hitchhiking post outside the settlement of Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem.
The abduction sparked Operation Brother’s Keeper, a massive search to locate the teenagers and a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, with hundreds arrested. The bodies of the three teens were found near Hebron on June 30, and a number of Israeli hardliners set up unauthorized West Bank outposts in response.
The Etzion settlement council welcomed Sunday’s announcement, and said it was the prelude to expansion of the current Gvaot settlement.
It “paves the way for the new city of Gvaot,” a statement said.
“The goal of the murderers of those three youths was to sow fear among us, to disrupt our daily lives and to call into doubt our right to the land,” it said. “Our response is to strengthen settlement.”
Yariv Oppenheimer, the head of dovish group Peace Now, strongly criticized the move and accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of having no real diplomatic plan.
“The expropriation is a stab in the back for [Palestinian leader] Mahmoud Abbas and the moderates in the Palestinian Authority, proving again that violence delivers Israeli concessions while nonviolence results in settlement expansion,” Oppenheimer said. “The Israeli government has once again proven that Netanyahu has no diplomatic horizon.”
The Gvaot settlement is currently home to a number of families and a winery.
Mordechai explained that the legality of changing the land’s status was fully reviewed before approval was given.
“The process was enabled after a detailed check by the Blue Line Team of the Civil Administration,” he said, referring to the special group of legal experts and surveyors tasked with reviewing and defining the exact locations of land Israel has appropriated in the West Bank.
“The decision to appropriate 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) and make them state land is unprecedented and changes the reality in the region of the Etzion Bloc,” Oppenheimer said, adding that there has not been such a large land seizure since the 1980s.
Peace Now official Hagit Ofran told AFP that the legal basis for such land confiscation was an 1858 ruling by the region’s Ottoman rulers.
AFP contributed to this report.