Israel is reaping the benefits of a sweet deal it struck at the start of the peace process: release a token amount of Palestinian prisoners, and continue gobbling up the West Bank.
On the same evening that 26 Palestinian prisoners were released over the objections of Israeli Jewish citizens, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced that plans to construct 1,500 homes in the Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem were moving forward. While this project has long been in the pipeline–announcement of settlements there caused a diplomatic crisis with the U.S. in 2010–the new announcement means that “within several months, it will be possible to start issuing building permits and marketing land to contractors,” Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reports.
Ramat Shlomo isn’t the only illegal settlement that is benefiting from the prisoner release. The next day, Israel announced that more plans to build settlements are moving though the pipeline. 2,500 units in total–including in settlements outside the “blocs”–will be built in the future.
Ravid also reports that plans to build a national park in East Jerusalem that would block construction in nearby Palestinian neighborhoods is moving ahead, as is a move to build a tourist center in the Palestinian village of Silwan. The tourist center will sit opposite of the City of David, another tourist spot that Jews around the world travel to, in Silwan, a flashpoint area of East Jerusalem where settler groups are actively trying to expand their presence.
The Israeli government did the exact same thing in August, when the first batch of what will be 104 Palestinian prisoners freed were released. Israel announced that 2,000 homes in East Jerusalem were to be constructed on the the same day that prisoners were freed.
Right-wing members of the Israeli coalition government have howled over releasing the prisoners, who had been in jail since before the Oslo Accords and have served time for violent attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers. Israel had already agreed to release these prisoners in 1999.
Despite its cries of anger, the right knew the prisoner release would happen when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started negotiating with the Palestinian Authority (PA). The roots of the prisoner release for settlements deal date back to July 2013. Netanyahu needed to give the Palestinian Authority something to entice them back to the table, so he gave them the least bad option for Israel: releasing prisoners. The other options–a settlement freeze or declaring the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations–were off the table, since it would lead to a collapse of his ultra-right coalition. It’s a perfect microcosm for the true priorities of Israel: holding onto the West Bank and expanding settlements.
The prisoner release allows the negotiations to continue rolling on. PA President Abbas can point to an achievement every single time another batch of prisoners are released. Reuters reported that he told a crowd of Palestinians celebrating the release of the 26 prisoners last night that there was no connection between the prisoner release and settlement expansion. “The settlements are void, void, void,” Abbas said. Reuters also reported that the Palestinian Cabinet released a statement saying they “would reject any attempt by Israel to ‘trade’ prisoners for continued settlement-building.”
Except that Abbas has effectively agreed to that trade by staying in the peace talks while settlements march on.
Meanwhile, Israel’s priority of expanding settlements is strengthened. The next time prisoners are released, expect more settlements to be announced.