Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has approved the expansion of the mega Efrat settlement in the southern occupied West Bank with 7,000 new housing units — nearly doubling the settlement in size.
With Bennett’s approval, Israel’s Housing Ministry can move into the planning stages for the “neighborhood”, which sits on 1,100 dunams (225 acres) of Palestinian land, known to locals as al-Nahla, and to settlers as Givat Eitam.
The settlers of Efrat have been in engaged in a decades-long legal battle with Palestinians over the land, where dozens of Palestinian families from surrounding villages own land that they use for farming and agriculture.
The land in question was designated by Israel as “state land” back in 2004, a move that was vehemently opposed by Palestinians as paving the way to allocate the land for eventual settlement expansion. They petitioned to the Israeli High Court against the “state land” designation, but were rejected by the court.
Bennett’s decision this week came just days after the Israeli Civil Administration denied a 2019 appeal filed by Palestinians and settlement watchdog Peace Now to allocate land in al-Nahla for Palestinian use, rathern than for the settlers.
The claim argued that the Palestinians had been farming the land for years, and therefore had stronger ties to the land than the settlers in Efrat.
Additionally, they argued that by expropriating this land for settlement expansion, Israel would be effectively cutting off the city of Bethlehem from the villages to its south, with Efrat running straight through the middle.
The Civil Administration, however, ruled on Sunday to reject the Palestinians’ request, and instead give the land to the settlers, arguing that “Efrat has almost no land reserves, and Givat Eitam is the only possible reserve it could acquire,” Haaretz reported.
According to Peace Now, data indicates that since the occupation of the West Bank in 1967, 99.8% of state land in the occupied territory has been allocated for Israeli and settlement use, while less than 0.2% has been given to Palestinians.
Peace Now said it plans to fight back against Bennett’s decision with a petition to the court in the coming days.
“This is a cynical move by a caretaker defense minister at the end of his mandate while the nation is still reeling from the corona crisis to advance a dangerous plan aimed at entrenching permanent Israeli domination in the southern West Bank and harming the prospect of a two-state solution,” Peace Now said in a statement.
“The right thing to do is to allocate the land for Palestinian construction, but the Ministry of Defense is currently run by an irresponsible politician willing to cross any red line in the name of his anti-democratic ideology.”
‘E2’: The new annexation battleground
Between the southern West Bank districts of Bethlehem and Hebron, lie dozens of Israeli settlements that make up the Gush Etzion bloc.
For years, the Israeli government has worked to expand the bloc and create a conglomerate of settlements in the area that would effectively split the southern West Bank in half.
This includes the 2014 takeover of nearly 1,000 acres of Palestinian land from five villages south of Bethlehem — the largest confiscation of Palestinian land in three decades.
Israel’s plans for al-Nahla have been deemed by activists as ‘E2’ due to its resemblance to Israel’s ‘E1’ plans, which would create a settlement bloc between Jerusalem and the central West Bank, making the viability of a future contiguous Palestinian state impossible.
Bennett’s approval of the new units in E2 comes just one week before the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit Israel to discuss annexation plans with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, according to reports from Israeli media.
While Pompeo’s visit has yet to be officially announced, reports of Pompeo’s visit surfaced on the same day thet US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told Israeli media that the Trump administration is ready to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank “within weeks.”
“When the mapping process is over, when the Israeli government agrees to freeze building in the same parts of Area C that aren’t designated for the application of sovereignty and when the prime minister agrees to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of the Trump plan — and he already agreed to this on the first day — we’ll recognize Israel’s sovereignty in areas that according to the plan will be a part of it,” Friedman told Israel Hayom Daily.
While Friedman said that US recognition of Israeli annexation would be conditional upon an agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian governments over the US peace plan, Israel has continued to build new settlements and expand existing ones in the month’s since the plan’s release.
Since 1967, Israel has settled an estimated 700,000 Israeli citizens in the West Bank in contravention of international law and the consensus that Israeli settlements are illegal.
Rights groups have noticed a sharp increase in settlement expansion during Trump’s time in office. According to Peace Now, the average annual rate of settlement expansion under Trump was 25 percent higher than during President Obama’s time in office.