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Israeli settlements are about much more than a few houses

An Israeli soldier stands guard near a Jewish-only settlement
File photo of An Israeli soldier who stands guard near a Jewish-only settlement

Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) are illegal, constituting a grave violation of the Geneva Conventions. They are also an impediment to a long-term negotiated deal, in that they eat up land, and their continued growth is a clear sign of bad faith.

But Israel’s colonies in the oPt are also part of a violent, inherently discriminatory regime of segregation and displacement – in other words, they have an immediate, ongoing human rights impact. And their “footprint” goes well beyond the built-up areas of houses and caravans.

The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has just published an important casestudy that, in the agency’s own words, ably illustrates how “the establishment and continuous expansion of settlements is a key driver of humanitarian vulnerability.”

It deprives Palestinians of their property and sources of livelihood, restricts their access to services, and creates a range of protection threats that, in turn, have triggered demand for assistance and protection measures from the humanitarian community.

OCHA notes how “research and monitoring of settlement expansion has mostly focused on the construction of residential areas and has neglected, to some extent, other forms of expansion.”

These other means of colonisations, OCHA explains, include “the development of road networks, agriculture and touristic sites, mostly on privately-owned Palestinian land, without formal permit from, but with the acquiescence of, the Israeli authorities.”

To illustrate the role of settlements in varied forms of expansion, OCHA selected one settlement in particular – Asfar, also known as Metzad, which was established in 1983 in the southern West Bank, nine miles from the Green Line.

Asfar began life, like many settlements, as a military outpost on privately-owned Palestinian land “requisitioned under a military order citing ‘security needs’.” Just one year later, the army handed over the outpost to “an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish group for the establishment of a civilian settlement.”

In the settlement’s early days, Israeli authorities “transferred thousands of dunums of land previously declared as ‘state land’ to the Asfar municipal boundaries”, an area now comprising nearly 7,800 dunums (7.8 square kilometres) – more than 50 times the size of the built-up area.

Why is that significant? Because “the entire municipal area of Asfar is declared ‘closed military area’, making it off-limits for Palestinian use”, and, with the exclusion of settlements in unilaterally-annexed East Jerusalem, “this classification applies to the municipal areas of all settlements”.

In 1992, Asfar residents established a colony (Asfar B) nearby, which was subsequently abandoned. In 2000, this outpost was “repopulated by a different group of settlers” and renamed Pnei Kedem. Today, there are around 600 Israeli settlers living in Asfar colony and Pnei Kedem outpost.

The settlers have expanded their control over some 2,300 dunums (2.3 square kilometres) outside municipal boundaries, half of which is “owned primarily by Palestinians, according to official Israeli records”. The settlers also cultivate trees and vines on more than 300 dunums (0.3 square kilometres) of mostly privately-owned Palestinian land.

What OCHA calls “de-facto expansion” has been “facilitated by the development of an extensive road network, largely banned for Palestinian use.” This extends over 11 miles, including several miles of “dirt roads” that link up “the various sections of the settlement-controlled area to each other.” All of these roads “encroach onto private Palestinian land and were built without permits.”

The creation and expansion of Asfar settlement has had “a severe impact” on Palestinian landowners, the general population of adjacent towns Sai’r and Ash-Shuyukh (over 33,000 people), and herding and farming communities Al Ganoub and Jurat Al Kheil (some 200 people).

For the two towns of Sai’r and Ash-Shuyukh, the main impact is “the loss of potential income from farming activities.” OCHA’s “conservative estimate” is that cultivation of this area by Palestinians “would generate an output of approximately $2.1 million a year.”

The restrictions on Palestinians are felt in a number of different ways. For example, “part of the main road leading to the settlement, which previously linked the Al Ganoub herding community to Sa’ir town, has been entirely closed to Palestinian use since the beginning of the Second Intifada.”

In 2005, the Israeli army installed a roadblock on another key road running next to the settlement, “effectively preventing Palestinian use”. Meanwhile, vehicular access from Al Ganoub to Sa’ir depends on access to the road leading to Asfar; this road was permanently blocked 2000-2007.

All residents of the nearby Palestinian communities point to “the regular presence of armed settlers in the area” as having “played a critical role in intimidating and discouraging them from accessing their land in the settlement-controlled area.” Settlement guards are supported by Israeli soldiers.

Since 2006, OCHA has recorded 18 attacks by settlers resulting in Palestinian injuries or property damage around Asfar. OCHA notes that this figure “excludes the more frequent incidents of harassment, access prevention, or the expulsion of farmers and herders from their land.”

Last year, for example, dozens of tree saplings were uprooted by settlers in February, and a few months later, 750 olive saplings were destroyed in an area near Asfar and its outpost.

While the Israeli settlers flourish and expand, Israel’s “discriminatory planning processes” in Area C – where Al Ganoub and Jurat Al Kheil are located – have created “a coercive environment that pressurises people to leave”. On four occasions during the past year, Israeli forces “demolished or requisitioned 28 homes and livelihood-related structures in the two communities.”

All of the above concerns the impact of just one, not particularly large settlement – and it is not even an exhaustive account of what the colonisation process has meant, and means, for local Palestinians.

So as the media focuses on the removal of a few dozen settlers in Amona outpost, remember that Israeli settlements are about much more than the houses themselves: they are a state-sanctioned and funded enterprise of colonisation and displacement – a daily war crime.

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