Expanding Jewish settlements test U.S. ahead of Biden visit

The Jewish settlement of Mechola in Jordan Valley (Ronen Zvulun - Reuters)

Ali Sawafta & Henriette Chacar

Reuters  /  July 12, 2022

Jordan Valley, West Bank – Steps away from a cluster of Palestinian tents and shacks in the northern Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, trucks worked in full force to prepare for the construction of a school for Jewish settlers.

The Jewish settlement of Mehola is trying to expand, as demand has become very high, Zohar Zror, 32, a resident, told Reuters.

Largely out of the public eye, settlements are growing across the occupied West Bank, raising Palestinian fears of displacement and posing a test for U.S. opposition to such building ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit this week.

In a Washington Post opinion piece published on Saturday, Biden said Washington has rebuilt ties with the Palestinians and is working with Congress to restore about $500 million in funding for them. His administration has pledged to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem closed by his predecessor Donald Trump.

But that has done little to satisfy Palestinian demands for U.S. support for an end to Israel’s decades-long occupation.

While the administration has expressed strong opposition to settlement expansion, which it said “deeply damages the prospect for a two-state solution,” settlement construction has gone ahead apace.

Meanwhile, the search for a solution involving an independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, which the United States and other countries see as the best basis for a lasting peace, has stalled.

“They don’t want to leave any Palestinians here,” said Salah Jameel, 53, a Palestinian farmer in the Jordan Valley. “They want to take the land.”

Most countries regard settlements Israel has built on territory it captured in a 1967 Middle East war as illegal. Israel disputes this and has settled some 440,000 Israelis in the West Bank, citing biblical, historical and political ties to the area, where 3 million Palestinians live under military rule.

In May, the Israeli government approved 4,400 new homes for Jewish settlers. Plans for a further expansion of settlements, that will effectively cut through the area Palestinians hope will form the basis of a future state, are set to be discussed after Biden’s visit.

“It is critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution,” such as settlement activity, a State Department spokesperson told Reuters.

David Elhayani, outgoing head of the Yesha Council, the Jewish settlers’ main umbrella organization, said it is time the Palestinians accept that there will be no Palestinian state.

“The settlement enterprise has taken off, it cannot be stopped now,” he said.

Noise

As Israel deepens its normalization with Arab countries in the region, it remains unclear what steps the United States is willing to take to discourage its ally from further entrenching the occupation.

Biden’s visit “can impact the amount of noise Israel is making about settlement expansion but not on the construction itself,” said Dror Etkes of Kerem Navot, an organization that monitors Israeli policy in the West Bank. “The entire political system (in Israel) is mobilized to protect the settlement enterprise,” he said.

The first Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley date from the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war. A fertile area of orchards and date plantations on the border with Jordan, it was seen by Israeli planners as key to creating a defensive buffer well to the east of Jerusalem.

Mehola, which was built in the late 1960s on Palestinian-owned land with Israeli government approval, is one example.

The military protection and the roads, water and power infrastructure underpinning settlements stand in stark contrast to conditions in nearby Palestinian villages.

Israel strongly rejects accusations from international and local rights groups that the settlement enterprise has created a system of apartheid.

Data collected by Israeli authorities shows a trend of expanding Israeli presence.

In the area of the West Bank where Israel has full control and where most Jewish settlements are located – a zone referred to as Area C under the Oslo peace accords agreed in the 1990s – only 33 building permits for Palestinians have been approved in the last five years, Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Alon Schuster told the Knesset plenum in February.

During that time, more than 9,600 housing units were started for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Palestinian Mahmoud Bisharat, 40, has no expectations from Biden’s visit. He told Reuters he hopes the U.S. administration will take stronger action to stop Jewish settlements and “the dispossession of Palestinians.”

“We have been on this land before 1967, the least they can do is protect our rights,” he said.

Reporting by Ali Sawafta and Henriette Chacar in the Jordan Valley; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, Writing by Henriette Chacar; Editing by James Mackenzie and William Maclean

____

 

Twenty-nine Democrats in the House of Representatives call a proposed Jewish settlement a ‘red line’ that threatens potential Palestinian state.

Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank is continuing apace after the collapse of the coalition government in Israel.

Meanwhile, new settlement plans that critics say could jeopardize the viability of a Palestinian state will not be discussed during US President Joe Biden’s visit on Wednesday.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, voted to dissolve itself last month, spelling the end of the ruling coalition and triggering elections that will happen in November.

The continuing settlement construction — including plans to develop 4,400 new homes in the West Bank — will test the Biden administration’s stated commitment to pursuing a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine crisis.

On July 3, 29 Democrat members of the House of Representatives urged Mr Biden to push back against Israeli settlement plans in an area called E1, or East 1. This comprises an existing Israeli settlement but also an area of land that would create a continuous arc of Israeli construction in the West Bank, to the north east of East Jerusalem.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Democrat politicians called the plans for E1 a “red line” and said it would severely damage a potential two-state solution by bisecting the West Bank.

Crisis in the Knesset

In June 2021, eight parties — a diverse grouping that included the United Arab List, also known as Ra’am, the first Israeli Palestinian party to join an Israeli government — formed to unseat former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The coalition, led by former prime minister Naftali Bennett — who handed over his role to former coalition partner Yair Lapid last week, part of a deal struck when the coalition formed — was initially under pressure from the Biden administration on settlement construction.

“We are deeply concerned about the Israeli government’s plan to advance thousands of settlement units…many of them deep in the West Bank,” State Department spokesman Ned Price warned Mr Bennett’s government in October last year.

Mr Bennett came under political attack from right-wing Israelis, who accused him of limiting approvals for settlement construction. However, in April his government advanced plans to build 4,000 new settler homes in the West Bank.

The US State Department warned it would “strongly oppose the expansion of settlements which exacerbates tensions and undermines trust between the parties.”. However, Reuters reported on Monday that expansion has continued apace.

In May, the Israeli government approved 4,400 new homes for Jewish settlers. Plans for a further expansion of settlements, that will effectively cut through the area Palestinians hope will form the basis of a future state, are set to be discussed after Mr Biden’s visit to the region.

Israel strongly rejects accusations from international and local rights groups that the settlement enterprise has created a system of apartheid — one of the main claims by those opposed to Israeli construction in the West Bank.

Data collected by Israeli authorities shows a trend of expanding Israeli presence.

In the area of the West Bank where Israel has full control and where most Jewish settlements are located — a zone referred to as Area C under the Oslo Peace accords agreed in the 1990s — only 33 building permits for Palestinians have been approved in the last five years, Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Alon Schuster told the Knesset in February.

During that time, more than 9,600 housing units were started for Israeli settlers in the West Bank, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.