While the White House is still formulating a new policy towards Israeli settlements, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preempted a potentially unfavorable U.S. dictate by announcing his own set of new rules. Netanyahu has told Israelis he forged a policy that shows his commitment to settlers, yet his advisors have said the opposite, namely that it is a stern rule to restrict growth at the behest of the Trump administration.
The settlement regulation itself is still vague. No text of the guidelines has been published. Reportedly it will restrict where settlers can build in the West Bank, but not how many or how often.
“There’s no limit on the number of housing units and no distinction between the blocs and the solitary settlements. It will be possible to build, but in a gradual and measured way and without taking more and more hills,” a cabinet member anonymously told Haaretz.
According to on Haaretz’s sources, the Netanyahu said settlers will get more buildings approved than they have in the past, but limited construction to parts of the West Bank in or near settler towns and cities. The idea is to congregate the new construction near older settlements and keep settlers out of desolate regions of the West Bank.
What is not allowed, Netanyahu was reported to have said to his cabinet, is building outposts, communities deemed illegal under Israeli law. This marks no change in official Israeli policy. Outposts are already illegal. Typically they are motorhomes or tent villages built on land in the occupied Palestinian territory by Israelis who do not apply for permits and must service the towns themselves with water, sanitation, and electricity. Many are not connected to formal road networks. From time to time, the Israeli military demolishes these communities.
Most are built on hilltops Palestinians own and use as herding grounds or agricultural terraces. A broad view on a topographical map would show they link together otherwise disconnected blocs of settlements. Meaning, outposts host few residents but have vital strategic importance for settlers who seek control over all or a majority of the West Bank.
Such was the case with Geulat Zion, sometimes spelled “Geulat Tzion,” an illegal outpost deep in the West Bank, closer to Jordan than Jerusalem. Israel demolished the ramshackle encampment in 2013. The settlers’ who lived there kept a blog at one time. They have returned and were living there again as recently as last January when four were arrested for throwing stones at undercover Israeli police dressed as Arabs.
Under the new guidelines, a place like Geulat Zion would clearly not pass the litmus test: it’s in the middle of nowhere. But on Thursday Netanyahu approved the settlement for new construction, making it the first new Jewish town in the West Bank since 1991.
Netanyahu was also said to have told his cabinet building in far-flung areas of the occupied Palestinian territory could be allowed, so long as there was first a good-faith attempt to secure plots in a pre-existing community. This could be a loophole used to approve places like Geulat Zion in the future.
What settlers and their advocates want in terms of a policy is the repeal of a commitment Israel made to the U.S. during the Oslo Accords, a freeze of new settlement towns. The freeze did permit the expansion of already built settlements. More or less that agreement has kept for the last 25 years. Israel violated it a total of seven times through retroactive legalization in actions this week and in 2012.
Settlers hope Netanyahu has just gutted what’s left of the freeze. Still, they made major gains both inside and outside of the system (critics would say if it ever had teeth, settlers rendered the freeze meaningless years ago).
Operating at times in flagrant protest of the government, settlers have established at least 100 illegal outposts in that time, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. And the overall number of settlers have doubled from 200,000 to more than 500,000, of whom a majority live in Israeli approved settlements. This occurred after years of Israel issuing building permits to grounds flanking pre-existing settlements. Eventually, a few homes became suburbs and suburbs were built up to small cities.
What’s worth mentioning now is that the residential units themselves in settlements only take up a total of 2 to 4 percent of the West Bank. Sometimes that figure is mentioned as an example of how easily Israel and Palestine could be partitioned into two states. But it is the road networks, telecoms systems, security buffers around towns, closed military zones and commercial agriculture farms that came with the settlers that have facilitated Israeli control over 61 percent of the West Bank, otherwise known as Area C.
Today, more of the West Bank looks like it’s part of Israel than part of a future Palestinian state. And what remains between the 61 percent is disconnected, not because of the residential units of the settlements, but by the settler road network. It hugs the land like a fishnet stocking.
It is no wonder then that even small increases in settler populations cause Palestinians considerable damage.
But settler advocates see the 2 to 4 percent more than the 61 percent and question why one or two building are worth international “alarm” from the United Nations or increasingly from British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Far-right member of Knesset Betzalel Smotrich from the Jewish Home party who is a settler himself told the pro-settler outlet Arutz Sheva that he is not confident Netanyahu is as pro-settler as he claims. And so Smotrich said he will submit applications for a slew of settlement permits, and then wait and see how the Netanyahu government deals with the request. If it does not go in Smotrich’s favor, he insinuated he will use parliamentary tools to amend Netanyahu’s settlement policy to his faction’s liking.
“We will put on the council’s table all the plans which need to be decided upon and we’ll see whether the PM will approve progress on them or not. If he doesn’t approve them, we will be unable to open the summer session of the Knesset in a normal way,” he said.
The settler umbrella organization the Yesha Council released a statement optimistically cautious Netanyahu’s guideline enable more settlements:
“In that case, as well, the true test will be the immediate renewal of building planning and development in all the areas of settlement and the facts on the ground. We will stand guard and work with the government of Israel to make sure that this plan does, indeed, come to fruition.”
Palestinians leaders say Netanyahu’s is trying to pacify settlers by taking more of their land and giving them new legal avenues for government support.
“Today’s announcement once again proves that Israel is more committed to appeasing its illegal settler population than to abiding by the requirements for stability and a just peace,” Palestinian legislature Hanan Ashrawi said.
Yousef Munayyer from the U.S. campaign for Palestinian rights told Mondoweiss he is not sure how the new policy will play out on the ground, “There is so much ambiguity, there is so much wiggle room, there is nothing specific here.” He went on to warn that in any reading of the policy Netanyahu has vowed for settler population will go up, which translates into a larger percentage of the Israeli electorate being settlers.
“The problem of the settlement complicating a peace agreement is not just the physical space they take up, It’s that a larger proportion of Israeli voters are living in the settlements, it’s a population issue, not just a space issue,” Munayyar said.
Netanyahu did comment on Facebook about his policy. It read as a message likely for tepid supporters on the right who question his commitment to them. Netanyahu said, using the biblical name for the West Bank, that his new policy came about because he “promised” to have a “new settlement in Judea and Samaria.” He then announced another 900 dunums of land in the occupied Palestinian territory now are designed as Israeli, and approved 2,000 settlement units.
It’s hard to read the above message as one of restriction, but advisors who were present when Netanyahu revealed the policy say they will comply with a Trump administration request to slow settlement growth.
“The Americans said that they don’t agree with construction in the settlements in any case, but that they can live with it and there won’t be an international crisis over every new home that’s built,” a cabinet member told Haaretz.”
A White House official who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity said the U.S. “welcomed” Netanyahu’s new regulations for precisely the opposite reason: they think he will slow or limit settlement construction.
“The Israeli government has made clear that going forward, its intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes the president’s concerns into consideration,” the official said.
Not mentioned in all of this is the Palestinian view on settlements. Their policy, which is the same as international law, says that all settlements are illegal whether they are government approved or outposts.
Around 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank. The Palestinian government has security and civil control over 11 percent of the territory.
Trump’s envoy on Israeli-Palestinian peace Jason Greenblatt was in the region two weeks ago and did meet with Palestinian leaders. He also historically met with settler representatives, a first time for the White House, and had two lengthy meetings with Netanyahu.