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Israel's latest stunt to keep settlement expansion away from critics

January 24, 2014 at 4:20 am

Whilst peace talks between Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are currently underway, internationally deemed illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank continue to mushroom.

Even if Netanyahu had agreed to Abbas’ precondition of a “settlement freeze” and stopped issuing tenders for new settlement homes during the peace talks, the freeze may not have been technically flouted, despite the sharp rise in the building of new units. This is thanks to a creative plan the Prime Ministers advisor on settlement affairs, Gabi Kadosh, is advancing.

According to leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Kadosh’s plan, currently being studied by the Cabinet Secretary, proposes to redefine settlements which would currently be considered “urban” settlements to “rural” ones. This change may seem fairly insignificant but there is a fundamental difference between the two.

For urban settlements, the Israeli government is legally obliged to issue public tenders in order to market land. From the moment of publication, tenders invite international condemnation and spark protests, a headache for the settler community and also the government. In the case of rural settlements, there is no such obligation. The land is allocated to the World Zionist Organization who allocates it to the relevant settlement movement; the latter can then market the land without having to publish a tender. Therefore, urban settlements going rural will ease the pressure that arises from the tenders going public, which in-turn means less delays in construction.

As settlement expansion is deemed responsible for the breakdown of the last talks, the international community fear there resumption after a three year hiatus is being threatened by continued building. This year the European Union issued a directive that will prohibit EU states from signing deals issuing grants, funding, prizes or scholarships with Israel unless a settlement exclusion clause is included. Moves to advance the controversial E1 plan, a settlement construction plan that would sever the West Bank in two, in the wake of Palestine’s successful UN bid, even led to Obama’s criticism. In short, Kadosh’s plan aims to allow Israel to conceal the continued building of settlements from the critical eyes of the international community.

The manipulation of the public tender’s process is already underway. Despite Israeli anti-settlement organization “Peace Now” reporting settlement construction in the first half of 2013 has risen by a drastic 70 percent compared to the first half of 2012, 86 percent of the new construction was carried out in areas where tenders were not required.

“The tendency of Netanyahu’s government has been to build more in isolated settlements deep in the West Bank where tenders are not needed, compared with the previous government which built in settlements closer to the Green Line,” said Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran to AFP.

The Israeli State Comptroller’s recently released report called the “situation of planning and construction in the territories” as one in which “everyone does what is right in his own eyes”. The report found that settlers living in “rural” settlements were exempt from the commitments of those living in “urban” settlements.

The World Zionist Organization, placed in charge of the establishment, development and management of “rural” settlements, did not enforce the law which requires the Custodian to sign an agreement with every settler permitted to build or reside on the land, nor did it collect the required leasing fees. The Custodian is the body in charge of managing “State Land” in the West Bank and forms part of the Civil Administration, the military body in charge of civil issues in the West Bank.

The lack of agreements places settlers in “rural” settlements outside the law, technically prohibits illegal building in these settlements, whilst encourages an increased migration to “rural” settlements via the lack of land leasing fee’s. Rural communities make up 87 of the 120 settlements in the West Bank.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.