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Israel’s largest land grab and settlement expansion

By : Najla M. Shahwan

Jordan Daily – The Israeli government has approved recently 5,295 new housing units in a host of illegal settlements across the occupied West Bank and recognized three new settlement outposts in the Palestinian territory.

The approval of the new settlements came  just a day after Israeli authorities approved the largest West Bank land seizure in more than three decades targeting 12.7sq km (4.9sq miles) of land in the Jordan Valley, as Peace Now NGO reported.

A move that raises the total amount of West Bank land that Israel has declared its own this year to 23.7sq km (9.15sq miles).

That makes 2024 by far the peak year for Israeli land seizures, the watchdog said.

By declaring them state lands, the Israeli government has opened them up to being leased to Israelis and prohibited to private Palestinian ownership.

The construction of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territory is illegal under international law and settlement expansion is seen as a major hindrance to the viability of a future Palestinian state.

The new approvals are all but assured to further stoke tensions at a time when Palestinians across the occupied West Bank are facing increased raids by Israeli forces and settlers amid Israel’s continuing war in Gaza.

“Our government continues to change the rules of the game in the occupied West Bank, leading to irreversible harm,” Peace Now said in a statement .

However, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich among the far-right politicians the prime minister has come to rely on for political survival was granted expanded powers over Israel’s administration of the occupied territory under Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Smotrich had laid out his plans for the West Bank at a conference for his ultranationalist Religious Zionism Party last month , a recording of which was obtained by Peace Now.

He said he intended to appropriate up to 15 square kilometers (nearly 6 square miles) of land in the West Bank this year.

“We came to settle the land, to build it, and to prevent its division and the establishment of a Palestinian state, God forbid,” he said during the conference , vowing to “change the map dramatically” by claiming more West Bank land than ever before as state land.

Besides, he promised to expand the establishment of farming outposts, which hardline settlers have used to extend their control of rural areas, and to crack down on Palestinian construction.

“This annexationist government severely undermines the security and future of both Israelis and Palestinians, and the cost of this recklessness will be paid for generations to come,” Peace Now said, condemning the appointment of Smotrich’s key allies to the body that approves settlements.

Israel has built well over 100 settlements across the West Bank, some of which resemble fully developed suburbs or small towns which are home to over 500,000 Jewish settlers who have Israeli citizenship.

Their existence remains a major roadblock to since-halted plans outlined in the Oslo Accords that promised the gradual transfer of Israeli-controlled areas to Palestinians.

Peace Now said the latest approved settlements, all of which have existed since the late 2010s as unofficial outposts, were Givat Hanan, Kedem Arava, and Machane Gadi in the Jordan Valley.

Moreover, Israel’s Higher Planning Council (HPC) justified the approval by saying the outposts were existing “neighborhoods” of existing settlements, despite being physically separated from those settlements, the watchdog highlighted , adding that the new settlements were distinct from five other new settlements approved by the Israeli cabinet recently.

On July 4, Norway’s minister of foreign affairs, Espen Barth Eide, called the latest actions “totally unacceptable”.

“Norway condemns these decisions, and we call on the Government of Israel to immediately reverse them,” he said in a statement, in which he decried the government’s policy of “dispossession, land confiscation and establishing illegal settlements”.

Norway joined Spain and Ireland in May in becoming the latest countries to formally recognize a Palestinian state.

Settlements have also been a rare area where the US has been willing to directly confront its “ironclad” ally Israel, although critics have said Washington has neglected to use the levers at its disposal to pressure Israel.

Earlier, US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said “unilateral actions like settlement expansion and legalization of outposts” were “detrimental to a two-state solution”.

“So , we’ll continue to use the tools at our disposal to expose and promote accountability for those who threaten peace and stability in the region,” he said.

About three million Palestinians in the territory are subjected to Israeli military rule.

Both Israeli military and settler violence in the occupied West Bank has surged since Israel’s war in Gaza began.

Since October, more than 553 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank, with 9,510 detained, according to Palestinian officials.

Settlers have carried out more than 1,000 attacks on the Palestinians since October in the West Bank, causing deaths and damaging property, according to the U.N.

The Palestinians view the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank as the main barrier to any lasting peace agreement, preventing any possibility of a cohesive state while most  of the international community considers settlements illegal or illegitimate.

Israel captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, territories , the Palestinians seek for a future state. Israel’s current government considers the West Bank to be the historical and religious heartland of the Jewish people and opposes Palestinian statehood.

The 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank live under seemingly open-ended Israeli military rule .

On the other hand, the  Palestinian Authority administers enclaves scattered across the territory, but is barred from operating in 60% of the West Bank, which includes the settlements as well as areas with a population of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Yoni Mizrachi, the head of settlement tracking at Peace Now, described the land grab announced recently as part of a strategy to establish a buffer zone between Jordan and Palestinian lands and choke off the practical possibility of a Palestinian state. The aim, he believes, is to push Palestinians into isolated islands surrounded by Israeli land.

“They definitely see this area as a strategic area, as the first and one of the easiest ways to begin annexation,” he said.

Prominent human rights organizations have pointed to Israel’s rule over the West Bank in accusing it of the international crime of apartheid, allegations Israel rejects as an attack on its legitimacy.

The U.S., E.U., UK and Canada have imposed high-level sanctions against violent settlers and settler organizations, but some of those targeted have said that that the measures have had little effect.

Najla M. Shahwan is Palestinian author, researcher and freelance journalist. Author of 13 books in literature and a children story collection .She is also Chairwoman of the Palestinian Center for Children’s Literature ( PCCL ) , founder of Jana Woman Cultural Magazine and Recipient of two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers.

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