The Israeli Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday that it had approved the creation of seven new Israeli nature reserves in Area C of the occupied West Bank.
According to the Jerusalem Post, the move — which also includes the expansion of 12 existing nature reserves — is the first time since the Oslo Accords that an approval of its kind has been issued.
The news comes on the heels of a controversial forum of right-wing activists and academics last week in Jerusalem, where Naftali Bennett, the current Minister of Defense, stood in front of the crowd and declared that Area C of the occupied West Bank “belongs to Israel.”
“We are embarking on a real and immediate battle for the future of the Land of Israel and the future of Area C,” Bennett told the Kohelet Policy Forum, referring to the more than 60% of the West Bank that was designated by the Oslo Accords as being under control by Israel.
As the leader of the “New Right” party, Bennett has long been a champion of the settler movement and a proponent of Israeli annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories. The expression of his sentiments towards Area C were by no means surprising, but given the support of the current U.S. administration, were extremely alarming.
Support from the United States
The Kohelet Policy Forum opened with a video message from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said “we’re recognizing that these settlements don’t inherently violate international law. That is important. We’re disavowing the deeply flawed 1978 Hansell memo, and we’re returning to a balanced and sober Reagan-era approach.”
The Trump administration’s position on settlements has drawn widespread criticism from Palestinian leaders and activists, as well as from the international community, which largely considers settlements to be the major roadblock to peace in the region.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, also addressed the conference, and emphasized the new U.S. position that the some 200 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were not in violation of international law.
“Israelis have a right to live in Judea and Samaria,” Friedman said, praising U.S. President Trump’s previous decisions to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
It would appear that there has already been coordination between the Netanyahyu and Trump governments on extending Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank.
In his speech Bennett also said that one month ago he began moving forward with plans to enforce Israeli sovereignty over the land, and indicated that he held discussions with the Trump administration to “[explain] the ways that the State of Israel will do everything possible to ensure that these areas will be part of the State of Israel.”
Facts on the Ground
The chilling reality of Bennett’s statements is that Israel’s “war” on Area C amounts to more than just the promises of politicians.
For years, and especially in recent months, the state has stepped up efforts to exert its control over the occupied territory, through things like the establishment of national parks, increased settlement expansion, and continued Palestinian home demolitions.
Around the same time Bennett made the declaration, the Palestinian Authority Chairman of the Commission Against the Wall and Settlements Walid Assaf announced that nearly 700 Palestinian buildings were demolished by Israeli authorities in the territories in 2019, with 300 demolitions in Jerusalem alone.
One day before, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled against a group of Palestinian villagers who were petitioning for the dismissal of the Ofra settlement’s master plan, given the fact that the settlement plan included a dozen of acres of privately owned Palestinian land.
And the day before that, settlement watchdog Peace Now reported that the Israeli Civil Administration advanced construction plans for 1,936 settlement housing units. The group noted that “89 % of the units promoted are in settlements that Israel may have to evacuate under a future peace agreement with the Palestinians.”
Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said Thursday, Israel has accelerated projects in pursuit of “de facto annexation” over the West Bank, “Israel is carrying out silent annexation of Palestinian land to ensure the permanent denial of the Palestinian people’s basic rights to freedom and justice.”
Updated: January 16, 2020, 10:30 a.m.