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Taking a million dunum bite out of Palestine

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated certain outposts’ master plans had been approved by The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). They were in fact approved by the Israeli Civil Administration, which is subordinate to COGAT.

Jerusalem24 – Weeks after US President Biden’s visit to the region, new Israeli settlement projects – which were nominally put on hold immediately before the visit in July – are making headlines across Palestinian and Israeli media.

The projects, if fully approved and implemented through a combination of new and existing laws, would entail the seizure of another 1,200,000 dunum of land, or over 20% of the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, for the development of illegal Israeli settlements.

Law in the service of settlement

Israeli settlers and settlement organizations have an arsenal of laws at their disposal which facilitate either the seizure of Palestinian land to establish settlements preapproved by the Israeli state, or the retroactive approval of illegally-erected outposts.

So-called “closed military zones”, which cover approximately 18% of the West Bank, are forbidden for Palestinians to access even if they were already living there, and many Palestinian communities face forced displacement under this law.

Israeli “top secret” documents declassified in July reveal that military firing zones were specifically created for the purpose of eventually transferring land to Israeli settlements. According to the minutes of a 1979 meeting of the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, which works with the Israeli government, then-Agricultural Minister Ariel Sharon explicitly stated the firing zones are a method for land-grab: “As the person who initiated the military fire zones in 1967, they were all intended for one purpose: to provide an opportunity for Jewish settlement in the area.”

Declaring Palestinian land “state land” is another common form of land expropriation. According to research by the Arab Studies Society, up to 60% of West Bank lands are now registered as state lands by Israel. So-called state land, which is administered by the Israeli army, is meant for the use of the local Palestinian population living under occupation, such as for building towns and villages or for necessary infrastructure. In actual fact, Israel has allocated the vast majority of state land for expanding Israeli settlements.

Now, new legislation being put forward by Israel’s Civil Administration makes use of the state land criterion to justify the retroactive legalization of dozens of illegal agricultural outposts that have cropped up in recent years, and which have taken over an area totaling some 240,000 dunum of Palestinian land.

“First you break the law, then you change the law”

Outposts are illegal even under Israeli law and some have been dismantled or evacuated. Their retroactive legalization, however, is both a state-sponsored and settlement group enterprise.

So-called agricultural outposts – or “shepherd outposts” – have proliferated in the occupied West Bank due to the relative ease with which settlers can establish them. They generally entail the installation of a single structure such as a tent or pen, with a small number of settlers then bringing in herds to graze the land.

As the settlers graze their flocks over large tracts of land, they then claim vast expanses of Palestinian land surrounding the structure as belonging to the outpost – a system Haaretz says was developed to “control the maximum amount of land with the minimum possible number of residents.”

The new legislation is officially meant to define the rules for establishing new outposts legal under Israeli law, but will in actual fact be used to legalize up to 35 of the existing 50 illegal shepherd outposts, as these fulfill the main criteria – being located on so-called state land – in order to qualify.

According to Haaretz, the influential settler movement Amana is “spearheading” the legalization efforts. Head of the movement Ze’ev Hever even lobbied to increase the number of outposts that would qualify for retroactive legalization under the new law.

“First you break the law, then you change the law to legalize the looting,” says a Haaretz editorial on the subject.

As the number of shepherd outposts steadily increased, the Civil Administration began planning the regulation about two years ago.

Separate legislation put forward in December 2020 to officially designate 31 illegal outposts as “new neighborhoods” to existing settlements (in order to avoid the international criticism that accompanies the establishment of new settlements) and 11 outposts as settlements, notably did not include agricultural outposts – “perhaps because the procedure for regularizing them is simpler,” according to Peace Now. The legislation did not pass the vote in the Knesset.

The new regulation for agricultural outposts does not require a vote in the Knesset, however the defense minister and the Justice Ministry must also approve it in addition to the Civil Administration.

Along with the new regulation, the Civil Administration would establish an agricultural division responsible for allocating grazing land to both settlers and Palestinians – forcing Palestinians to obtain permits to graze their flocks on lands they’ve used for years or generations.

Jewish settlers sit together in Givat Eviatar, a new Israeli settler outpost, near the Palestinian village of Beita in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. [Source: Yahoo Finance]

Government money financing illegal outposts

Legislation is not the only joint effort between the government and the settlement movement in aiding the establishment of agricultural outposts.

Israeli state money has been found to directly fund certain illegal outposts via settlement organizations which purchase agricultural equipment, construction materials, and mobiles homes for the outposts, as revealed by Haaretz in a 2020 investigation.

According to Haaretz, the shepherd outposts in Gush Etzion (the settlement bloc south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem where around 87,000 settlers live, and where 24 illegal outposts have appeared since 1994) “have become a model for the development of similar settlements and outposts in the West Bank.”

Data obtained by Haaretz shows the Gush Etzion Regional Council has funded illegal shepherd outposts to the tune of over NIS 2 million since 2011, a portion of which was funded via the Amana settlement organization.

Some of these outposts have since been retroactively legalized, with their master plans approved by Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank.

What is Amana?

Amana is a settlement organization headed by settlement movement leader Ze’ev Hever, a former member of the Jewish Underground, a terrorist organization that operated in the West Bank in the 1980s. Amana has been involved in the establishment of a large number of settlements and unauthorized outposts, including Amona and Migron and nine homes that were built on privately owned Palestinian land in the settlement of Ofra and later demolished by court order. Haaretz has published a number of investigative reports concerning illegal methods used by Amana – primarily through its Binyanei Bar Amana subsidiary.

Source: Haaretz, ‘Israeli Settler Group Funneled Half a Million Dollars in Public Money to Illegal Settlements’, December 2020

Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard filed a petition to Israel’s High Court in 2019 on behalf of NGO Peace Now, seeking to block regional councils from funding Amana.

In May 2022, Sfard filed another petition on behalf of Peace Now demanding that the court order an investigation against the heads of the Gush Etzion Regional Council for their involvement in funding the illegal outpost of Sde Boaz.

“There is no way to explain the audacity of taking over private and public lands and building on them without any right, but that the developers, financiers and operators all enjoy an unquestionable sense of immunity,” says the petition.

Boxed in: The case of occupied East Jerusalem

In East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967 and formally annexed in 1980 in a move not recognized internationally, and where Israel has expropriated over 35% of the land by declaring it “state land”, a “nature reserve”, or through other mechanisms, a new settlement plan threatens the Palestinian village of Battir, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its centuries-old agricultural terraces.

Israel is promoting the plan, officially announced on Sunday, as an extension to the existing settlement of Har Gilo; however the new planned construction is not contiguous with Har Gilo, and critics say it constitutes an entirely new settlement. The plan also calls for the construction of a seven-meter-high barrier between the new settlement and the Palestinian village of Al-Walaja, which is already fenced off on three sides and would find itself nearly completely surrounded.

Another new settlement, Givat HaShaked, officially approved and announced in early September, will leave a distance of just 20 meters between its buildings and the houses of the Palestinian village of Beit Safafa.

The plan for the new settlement, first touted in December 2021, originally called for 473 housing units. In the final approved version of the plan, this has now been increased to 700, which – in the relatively small 38-dunum plot of land – will entail the construction of 24-storey buildings towering over neighboring Beit Safafa from the northeast corner.

In July, Israeli Prime Minister Lapid postponed by one week a meeting of the Jerusalem District Planning Committee to discuss depositing the Givat HaShaked plans, due to US President Biden’s impending visit to the region. Successive Israeli governments have generally put settlement plans on hold immediately preceding US state visits in order to forego the associated criticism.

Meanwhile, the expansion of the illegal settlement of Givat HaMatos, for which the Israel Lands Authority has already awarded tenders for construction, will further surround Beit Safafa from the eastern side, and prevent contiguity between the two Palestinian villages of Beit Safafa and Sur Baher.

A map of occupied East Jerusalem shows existing illegal settlements in blue and planned illegal settlements in red. Givat HaShaked is in the top right corner. [Credit: Peace Now]

Taking a 1 million dunum bite out of the West Bank

These news projects, whether formally approved or still in the planning stages, come against the backdrop of both older and newer, highly controversial plans, coming to the fore.

The so-called E1 settlement plan, which has elicited controversy at the international level for over two decades and was shelved as a result, was initially resurrected and officially approved during the Netanyahu era before international pushback once again put the project on hold, and in January this year, Israel once again officially withdrew the plan.

At the end of May, however, mere weeks before Biden’s scheduled visit, the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, which administers the occupied West Bank in civil matters including construction, announced that a hearing would go forward to hear objections to the project on 18 July – two days after the end of Biden’s trip. The US is firmly opposed to the plan.

The hearing has since been postponed three times, the latest of which was last Thursday. The project still needs to go through several stages of approvals before it can officially be implemented.

What is E1 and why is it so controversial?

E1 (“East 1”) is the Israeli administrative name for an area in the occupied West Bank east of occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem. It’s located inside the “municipal boundaries” of the large illegal Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. Israel is planning to expand the Ma’ale Adumim settlement into E1, including nearly 4,000 housing units for Jewish Israeli settlers.

E1 and the Ma’ale Adumim settlement cut deep into the West Bank, effectively cutting it in two. Israel’s construction of settlements in the area precludes the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution, which the US and international community support.

Source: IMEU, ‘Fact sheet: Israel’s E1 Settlement’

A map from February 2020 shows the size of the planned E1 settlement relative to existing settlements and Palestinian towns in occupied East Jerusalem. [Credit: Ir Amin]
Another project, details of which have yet to be released, would also result in severing the north from the south of the West Bank. It was put forward by the Yesha Council in July this year, and would entail the seizure of over 1 million dunums of Palestinian land between the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem.

The Yesha Council is an umbrella organization representing illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. One of their stated goals as per their website is “To prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

The project for a “national park” stretching from Jerusalem in the west to the Dead Sea in the east would effectively cut the West Bank into two, with Palestinians obliged to pass through heavily manned checkpoints and subjected to severe traffic and delays – similar to Qalandiya checkpoint which effectively cuts off occupied East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

According to Israel Hayom, which publicized details of the settlement council plan, the park would stretch from the settlement of Kokhav HaShahar to the northeast of Ramallah down to the Herodion area east of Bethlehem, over to Wadi Darajeh near the Dead Sea and up to Qasr Al-Yahud (the traditional baptismal site of Jesus) on the Jordan River.

The project includes the establishment of tourist and information centers in the area, as well mobile restaurants and a network of hotels north of the Dead Sea.

Israel Hayom shared the plan the day before Israel’s Ministry of Tourism announced its budget for the year 2022. The budget allocates NIS 300 million to tourism infrastructure development, and specifically for development in the area between Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and Bethlehem.

No further announcements concerning the project have been made as of publication.

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