Weeks before the March 2020 General Election in Israel, the main pillar of the right-wing campaign headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was propaganda based around “annexation” of more occupied Palestinian land. The annexation process would have started from the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea, and then to the major settlements surrounding Jerusalem, including the Ma’ale Adumim settlement bloc and the western hills directly overlooking the coast and most of the land in the area, which is classified as Area C according to the Oslo Accords.
After the election, statements about annexation slowed down against the backdrop of the government coalition between the Likud and Blue and White parties, after the latter stressed that the process in its right-wing format was not appropriate. However, Netanyahu’s agreement to postpone annexation did not stem from the discussion with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party as much as from his knowledge that the Arab wall blocking normalisation was about to fall down.
Moreover, Netanyahu knew, from the Trump administration, that a cover had to be given to the major breakthrough in Arab normalisation of relations with Israel and the establishment of diplomatic relations and economic and security alliances. This cover came in the form of Israeli agreement to postpone annexation, but not to cancel it. At a stroke, this disproved the UAE claim that the main goal of normalisation was to stop the annexation of occupied Palestinian territories. Netanyahu and his government denied this, as did Washington, particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who confirmed that this was a postponement only.
The settlers’ movements realised post-normalisation that the possibility of annexation is now slight and is not on the Israeli government’s agenda. The latter had achieved unexpected gains and it was necessary for it to search for another annexation strategy under new pretexts that the Trump administration would agree to and the Arab governments would be silent about.
In recent weeks, therefore, Israeli settlers have formed a lobby to put pressure on members of the Knesset and the Israeli government to legalise settlement outposts, dozens of which exist. While all settlements are illegal under international law, such outposts are illegal even under Israeli law.
Hence, “settlement outposts” became “poor settlements”, home to settlers without the minimum infrastructure suitable for living. This means water supplies, electricity, permits, construction and gradual expansion. In short; “outposts” will become “ordinary settlements”.
There are two types of settlement outposts. The first are built near existing settlements, which Netanyahu has provided with access to water and electricity via lines connected to the settlements. The second are those far away from existing settlements, for which there was a legal problem for the water and electricity companies, as there was no legal cover to deliver services to these outposts as they are all illegal under Israeli law.
Lobbying has brought a large number of MKs onto the settlers’ side, who have accelerated the legal recognition of these outposts, and allocated a large budget for them, so that they turn into settlements in their own right. Even those built on private Palestinian land upon which the Israeli Supreme Court previously ruled it was illegal to build on.
However, just as Israeli society has shifted sharply towards the right, so too has the judiciary. The evidence of this is the way that the courts respond to petitions submitted by Palestinians whose land and property has been appropriated, or those submitted by human rights and humanitarian organisations. Half of the Supreme Court judges are appointed by Netanyahu, not directly, but under his very obvious influence.
Perhaps the approval by the Supreme Court a few days ago for the declaration that the land belonging to Kafr Aqab, south-east of Ramallah, is now classed as state land — the Kochav Yaqoub settlement is built upon it — sets a legal precedent. More than 55 acres of privately-owned land was declared to be state land under false pretences. The main claim is that the owners have not used the land recently, or it was not cultivated, and so it became state property according to a law dating from the Ottoman era, which the Israeli occupation authorities use to implement their settlement plans.
That precedent effectively legalises a group of settlement outposts that have been established on privately-owned Palestinian land in the West Bank. Today, we may be talking about 20 similar outposts. Attorney Shlomi Zakharia, the representative of the Palestinians in the Kochav Yaqoub settlement case, said that the Supreme Council’s decision establishes a loophole to control Palestinian land.
Faced with this undeclared silent annexation, the Palestinian Authority must do its duty and force everyone who owns a piece of land, even if it is rocky, to cultivate it as quickly as possible and not leave it to an obsolete Ottoman law that is exploited by the occupation authorities. Such silent annexation is a very real threat, and arguably more dangerous than many people think.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.