Last Sunday, Israel made the decision to declare nearly 1000 acres of land in West Bank as state land. The decision, which opens the way for the Israeli government to begin new settlement construction, has been roundly condemned by the international community as well as some Israeli politicians and civil society actors. Criticism has been mainly levelled against Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu, who is seen as pandering to his right-wing constituency. The Palestinians, for their part, have expressed shock at the decision and could very well take the next step of joining the International Criminal Court, thereby exposing Israeli decision makers to the Court’s investigations.
In right-wing Israeli circle, there is a sense that the decision was the right course of action, considering Israel’s current housing crisis. Uzi Baruch and Ari Yashar, writing for Arutz Sheva, go further and make the claim that the land, which lies in what they refer to as the heart of Israel’s biblical heartland, is mostly unpopulated anyways: “By declaring the area state land, the Knesset would enable the construction and expansion of Jewish communities in the region, although the process may take long years to complete. Judea and Samaria is reportedly over 90% unpopulated, leading many to argue that the development of Israel's biblical heartland would solve the housing crisis plaguing the Jewish state....Meanwhile in the Samaria community of Beit El, residents are still waiting for the fulfillment of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's promise to build 300 housing units, a promise made after the Ulpana neighborhood was uprooted last year.”
In another Arutz Sheva article, Rabbi Yoel Domb takes issue with the critics from the United States, reminding them of the United States’ own history of settling lands belonging to Native Americans, claiming that in contrast to the Americans, the Israelis are settling lands that rightfully belongs to them: “Had they cared to examine which territory had been annexed they would have realized that this is a hallowed site, akin to the Little Bighorn National Monument. No Arab had maintained a claim to these areas, and if any would stake a claim, it would probably be the descendants of the murderers of the Etzion Bloc who live in the adjacent villages Jaba, Tzurif and Nahlin. Do they deserve to cultivate this land? Or as the Bible puts it: ‘Have you murdered and then inherited?’... Maybe America's government should first take a closer look at the actions of Custer and his cohorts and realize that the real colonial expansionists who impeded peace are they themselves.”
But, such voices even within in Israel, are drowned by a general unhappiness with either the timing or the signals that such a blatant seizure of land in the West Bank sends. Itay Blumenthal, writing for Yedioth Ahronoth, comments on recent statements by the Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid who wondered whether anything good could come from the decision: “Speaking at Calcalists Economic Forum, Lapid said ‘decisions like the one announced yesterday, on the nationalization of (the area) for building, raises the question 'what good does it do at this time?' This is underhanded opportunism that was not put to the Cabinet and just harms Israel.’”
Then there is Yoaz Hendel, who disapproves of the manner in which his government has rolled out the land grab and wonders whether it has considered all the implications of the decision to declare the area state land: “Annexation of Israeli settlement bloc requires organized construction plan, outlines and citizenship process for Palestinians living in area. Right now, we are seeing nothing but declarations....The Gush Etzion story has all the consensus components: A Zionist ethos, a combat history, a cooperative settlement movement and a moderate religious Zionism of the old type, but it also contains every possible mistake....The State of Israel must examine itself: How is it possible that a declaration of 4,000 dunams as state land achieves the counter effect? How is the consensus around Gush Etzion being dissolved?”
It is clear that settlement building has and continues to be a big obstacle for moving forward the peace talks, a fact pointed out by several editorials, including a recent one from the Peninsula: “As Palestinian leaders have pointed out ad nauseam, the settlement expansion has been one of the biggest impediments to the restart of the peace process. They have repeatedly urged the world to act more seriously to prevent this crime by Israel, but the U.S. and Europe have so far restricted themselves to verbal censure. Israel is used to and has developed immunity to international criticism and what is needed is deterrent action....More vocal and meaningful support for the Palestinian cause is coming nowadays from the Western public, causing intense concern in Israel. Netanyahu must realise that confiscation of Palestinian land will not go unpunished.”
Even the Haaretz editorial calls Mr. Netanyahu out for talking the diplomatic talk, but walking the settlement walk: “The ink was not yet dry on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promises, after Operation Protective Edge, of a ‘diplomatic vision’ and ‘new opportunities in the Middle East,’ before he and his cabinet were back to their old policy, which is subservient to the interests of the settlers and those who reject peace....The prime minister...is himself destroying the new opportunities he claimed to seek. Netanyahu is being led by the cabinet members of Habayit Hayehudi, who do as they wish with the state and its resources.”
Others are not so kind. Not only is Mr. Netanyahu being accused of being disingenuine, but his actions and those of his government have been denounced as ‘war crimes’ by PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi. According to the Palestinian website Wafa, Mr. Ashrawi: “strongly denounced Israel’s announcement to confiscate 1,000 acres (3,811 dunams) of Palestinian land from Hebron and Bethlehem area, stressing that, ‘Israeli settlements in the West Bank are a perpetuation of Israel’s war crimes,’ said a press release issued Sunday by PLO Executive Committee Department of Culture and Information.... ‘The Israeli government has proven once again that it is not a partner for peace nor a member of the international community that respects the global rule of law or consensus. Israel must face legal, political and economic sanctions for its violations of international law in Palestine. Impunity, criminality and lawlessness are the sure path to war, not peace,’ concluded Ashrawi.”
The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, is being urged to go beyond condemnations and declarations. Instead, as Gulf News’ George Hishmeh argues, they should begin making the necessary preparations for joining the UN and the International Criminal Court: “It is high time for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, to stand up and be counted — now that all the mediatory attempts by the U.S. have failed to yield any tangible results for a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement....The Palestinians should not be fearful of failure in applying for membership of the UN Security Council, a step they are entitled to undertake since they are now a ‘non-state member’. Nabeel Shaath, a former Palestinian foreign minister, said Palestinians could approach the International Criminal Court with a request to hold Israeli leaders accountable for war crimes during their invasion of Gaza.”
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