With ire over Palestinian expansion, settlers aim to reshuffle Israeli priorities
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With ire over Palestinian expansion, settlers aim to reshuffle Israeli priorities

Long frustrated by US-imposed construction curbs, right-wing leaders fear plan to build thousands of units in Qalqilya signifies nothing has changed

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

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

Settler leaders are seething. Though that may not be unusual for a lobby that has long perfected the art of pressuring the government, what’s unique about the current uproar is that it is over building authorizations for Palestinians, not Israelis.

Last Wednesday, Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan released a statement lambasting the security cabinet’s approval of a plan to build up to 14,000 housing units in the West Bank Palestinian city of Qalqilya.

“The political echelons are granting the terror city of Qalqilya the ultimate terror award,” he charged, and went on to accuse the government of having “lost its brakes” and being “completely mad.” Statements from other settler leaders echoed the sentiment, though they weren’t as colorful as Dagan’s.

“We call on the prime minister and cabinet ministers to immediately correct this distortion and to approve the many [Jewish building] plans awaiting authorization in Judea and Samaria, as well in the the Jordan Valley,” read a statement from the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of settlement municipalities.

Yossi Dagan, the head of Shomron Regional Council, addresses the 14th annual B'Sheva Jerusalem Conference on February 12, 2017. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yossi Dagan, the head of Shomron Regional Council, addresses the 14th annual B’Sheva Jerusalem Conference on February 12, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday morning, after several right-wing ministers denounced the scheme, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to downplay his role in its approval, reportedly telling Likud lawmakers that he couldn’t recall it being raised before the cabinet. Quickly caving to the pressure, he announced that another debate would be held over whether to allow the Qalqilya expansion.

While Netanyahu later denied reports that he had feigned ignorance of the plan, he made a point of pinning responsibility for it on Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, saying that the latter had failed to present the security cabinet with the full details of the potentially explosive expansion initiative.

Liberman deflected the charges, saying that a document on the Qalqilya construction was distributed to all ministers by the Defense Ministry planning committee before they went on to approve it. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon also stood by Liberman, saying that the issue had in fact been debated and that nobody had been left in the dark.

Dulling the details

What seemed to have been missed amid the commotion was that the plan was nothing new. It had been approved by the the cabinet in September 2016 as part of Liberman’s “carrots and sticks” policy, which seeks to punish Palestinians who support terrorism, while making life easier for those who don’t. “Qalqilya was one of the quiet cities during the last terror wave,” Liberman said, justifying the move, at a Monday meeting of lawmakers from his Yisrael Beytenu faction.

Although the exact details of the construction were kept secret to avoid angering settler leaders, an October Haaretz report specified that what the cabinet had authorized was indeed an extension of the city. The information was there for those interested in accessing it.

But sources in the Samaria Regional Council claim that they had not been kept in the loop and that Dagan only came across the maps of the Qalqilya plan by chance, during a meeting at the headquarters of the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that authorizes West Bank construction.

A map of the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. The colored area represents reported plans for expansion (Courtesy of Samaria Regional Council)
A map of the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. The colored area represents reported plans for expansion (Courtesy of Samaria Regional Council)

While the plan does indeed speak of 14,000 housing units, the number is specified as a projected maximum that can be built within the legal bounds of strict Israeli planning rules. Indeed, the plan also specifies a more “realistic” figure of 6,187 units, which would only be completed by 2035.

Moreover, the plan indicates that roughly 1,000 of the units have already been constructed and will simply be receiving retroactive approval

All of the land to be used for construction is privately owned by Palestinians and is surrounded almost entirely by Israel’s security barrier. In addressing the surge of criticism from settlers and right-wing lawmakers, Liberman pointed out that “no Israeli enters these areas anyway.”

‘A smokescreen’

The various caveats mitigating the substance of the plan raise a legitimate question: Is the clamor over Qalqilya really about Qalqilya?

Hagit Ofran of the anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now insisted that the reaction of Dagan and other settler leaders is entirely spin. “The plan does not impact any settler interest at all. The construction will be entirely within the fence surrounding Qalqiliya. This is just racism and another attempt to pressure Netanyahu to approve more construction in the settlements,” she said.

Settlers rejected her claim. Yesha Council spokesman Yigal Dilmoni argued that permitting construction in Israeli-controlled Area C, when the Palestinians are already able to build in Areas A and B due to their administrative sway, is a grave mistake. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 14,000 units or 6,000. They’re preventing us from building, while giving the Palestinians free rein,” he said.

Dilmoni was referring to what settler leaders say is an insufficient number of settlement construction projects advanced by the Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee earlier this month. The more than 3,000 units advanced through various stages included 102 housing units for the new Amichai settlement being built for evacuees of the illegal Amona outpost — the first new government-planned settlement in over 25 years.

Yossi Dagan (L), head of the Samaria Regional Council that oversees settlements in the northern West Bank, led a protest on the outskirts of Qalqilya calling on the government to cancel a plan allowing the Palestinian Authority to expand the city of Qalqilya. (Samaria Regional Council)
Yossi Dagan (L), head of the Samaria Regional Council that oversees settlements in the northern West Bank, led a protest on the outskirts of Qalqilya calling on the government to cancel a plan allowing the Palestinian Authority to expand the city of Qalqilya. (Samaria Regional Council)

But settler leaders cite the approval of just 66 units for the Samaria Regional Council and zero for the Gush Etzion Regional Council as proof that construction for their residents is being stymied.

Surrounded on three sides by Israel’s security barrier, Qalqilya lies opposite the country’s central region only a few kilometers from Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv. The trans-Israel highway, Route 6, passes next to the city, whose 53,000 residents already suffer from extreme overcrowding, sitting on just 4,000 dunams (990 acres). The district’s governor, Rabih Khandakji, told Channel 2 that the figures indicate a level of congestion more severe than in the Gaza Strip.

Dilmoni recommended that Qalqilya residents worried about overcrowding “move somewhere else,” though he later clarified that they should “build upward rather than laterally.”

Qalqilya’s expansion also makes the annexation of Area C — a key campaign promise of Naftali Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish home party — a more daunting task as it means engulfing an additional 60,000 Palestinians under Israeli rule according to the plan’s figures.

But Yoaz Hendel, the chairman of the right-leaning Institute for Zionist Strategies and a former Netanyahu communications director, said that while settlers’ concerns over Qalqilya were justified, they were citing the wrong reasons.

He said that the city’s proximity to the Green Line made expansion problematic not only for annexationist settlers, but also for those less hardline right-wingers who are looking for a solution similar to what Netanyahu has referred to as a “state minus” for the Palestinians. Under such a plan, which would see Israel retain long-term security control over much of the West Bank, it would also be in Israel’s interest to limit Palestinian expansion in Area C, according to Hendel.

Yoaz Hendel (courtesy the Institute for Zionist Strategies)
Yoaz Hendel (courtesy the Institute for Zionist Strategies)

He referred to the recent political storm over the issue as a “smokescreen” preventing politicians from dealing with the real issue: the broader future of the West Bank.

“Qalqilya is causing settlers to focus on tactics rather than strategy, and they are losing sight of the bigger picture,” he argued.

Hendel said that if settlers believe that a vision of two states based on the 1967 lines is unrealistic, then they should focus on presenting their alternative rather than harping on the issue of Qalqilya.

Trump’s catch-22

Like Peace Now’s Ofran, Hendel pointed out that the settler outcry was likely triggered by a desire to see ramped-up construction of settlement housing units in the West Bank. “The settlers are worried about eight years of Obama repeating themselves,” he said, referring to the previous US administration, which was very outspoken against settlement building.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US President Donald Trump, right, speak at Ben Gurion International Airport prior to the latter's departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US President Donald Trump, right, speak at Ben Gurion International Airport prior to the latter’s departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

That panic, according to Hendel, stems from the idea that after surviving eight years of what they saw as a belligerent administration, settlers felt they had finally caught a break with the election of Donald Trump, only to find that the Israeli government’s actual policy on building allocations has changed very little and that the US president is hell-bent on pursuing the “ultimate deal” with the Palestinians.

Hendel laid out what he said was a “catch-22” that comes with the new president, to whom it is “difficult to say no because he is hugging us so tightly.”

“Whoever thought that Trump would be some sort of messiah,” he said, “realized a while ago that this is not the case.”

What’s true is that each side of the internal Israeli debate views settlement construction figures through starkly different lenses. On Monday when the Central Bureau of Statistics released building data from the past year, Peace Now sent out a press release lamenting the 70% increase in West Bank construction launches. But for their part, settlement supporters decried the 25% decrease in building completions.

With regard to Dagan and the ideological right in particular, this glass-half-empty outlook seems to be pouring over into their view of the Qalqilya extension plan as well.

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