Israel has advanced plans for 3,600 new settlement units deep in the occupied West Bank, the largest batch since US President Donald Trump was elected in 2016.
The High Planning Subcommittee of the Civil Administration – the Israeli body which administers the occupied West Bank – advanced plans for 3,600 illegal settlement units to be built throughout the territory. A spokeswoman for the committee told the Times of Israel yesterday that the majority of the plans were passed through a "planning stage known as 'deposit'", while "1,226 units received final approval for construction".
The Israeli daily explains that under an unofficial agreement between Israel and the US, "Israel can add an unlimited number of housing units to any settlement in the West Bank as long as it does not dramatically expand the community's existing 'footprint'". This agreement has formed the basis of US policy towards Israel's illegal settlement expansion since President Trump took office in 2016.
An additional element of this agreement is that the Civil Administration committee now meets once every three months instead of every month. The Times of Israel notes therefore that "whereas past sessions have seen the advancement of 1,000 to 2,000 homes, the 3,659 on the docket represented the largest batch of homes advanced since Trump took office".
Over 1,000 of these units will be located deep in the occupied West Bank: in Elon Moreh, northeast of Nablus; Mitzpe Jericho, south of Jericho not far from the West Bank's border with Jordan; and Nokdim, south of Bethlehem.
A number of settlement units will also be built in Rehelim, off Route 60 south of Nablus, which was thrust into the spotlight in January after it emerged that Israel's Security Agency, Shin Bet, was holding several students from a seminary located in the settlement for the murder of Palestinian mother Aisha Al-Rabi. A 16-year-old teen from the settlement was charged with manslaughter for the killing in February.
The administration also retroactively "legalised" the outpost of Haresha, situated near Ein Qiniya north of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Despite the fact that the access road to Haresha is built on private Palestinian land, Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in December issued a legal opinion which paved the way for its expropriation. The move means the outpost now has official government recognition, allowing the state to undertake construction and enabling Israeli law to be extended to illegal settlers living there.
Although Israel differentiates between settlements – which have official government recognition – and outposts, both are deemed illegal under international law which prohibits the transfer of civilian populations into occupied territory.
That the approval represents the largest batch of settlement units sanctioned since President Trump took office is significant given that, under his administration, Israel's illegal settlement project has already reached new heights.
In January, newly-released data compiled by left-wing NGO Peace Now – which monitors Israel's West Bank settlement activity through its Settlement Watch program – revealed that, since the Trump administration took office, settlement planning has reached its highest level since 2013. Peace Now found that "in 2017, plans were advanced to build 6,712 new settlement homes, roughly 2.5 times the 2016 level," the effects of which are only expected to become clear in years to come as these plans advance into construction stage.
Trump's support of Israel's settlement agenda culminated in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing this weekend that he plans to annex the West Bank if he is re-elected in the general election tomorrow. Speaking in an interview with Israel's Channel 12 News, Netanyahu said: "I am going to extend [Israeli] sovereignty [to the occupied West Bank] and I don't distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements."
Though Netanyahu's announcement has been criticised as an opportunistic attempt to secure his re-election tomorrow, Netanyahu has since doubled-down on his promise. In an interview this morning, Netanyahu said that he had been discussing the move with the Trump administration for a long time, saying: "I prefer to do this [annex the West Bank] with agreement. I discussed this with representatives of President Trump and I told them, in my opinion, there is no way around it, and I think it is also the right thing to do. But it is going to happen. This isn't something I cooked up for the elections."
Netanyahu's move has long been predicted, particularly in the wake of President Trump's announcement last month that the US would recognise Israel's control of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. This, combined with his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 and his decision to move the US embassy to the Holy City in May, has ripped up international convention on the occupied Palestinian territories, setting a precedent for Netanyahu's West Bank annexation should he prove victorious in tomorrow's vote.