image Photo: Flash90

Israel lifts Samaria settlement ban

The move has prompted widespread concern.

By Erin Viner

In a 31-18 vote, the Knesset approved an amendment to the 2005 Disengagement Law – paving the way for the reconstruction of four Israeli communities in northern Samaria that had been razed during Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

Residents of the Homesh, Se-Nur, Kadim and Ganim settlements were evicted 18 years ago due to their location on land said to have been previously owned by individuals from two nearby Arab villages. And while prospects of a Jewish return to the property has repeatedly been deemed as ‘highly unlikely’ over the years, Members of Knesset (MPs) aligned with Israel’s settlement enterprise – who currently hold 15 mandates – have pledged to legalize the rebuilding of the communities.

MK Yuli Edelstein, who heads the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, hailed the move as “the first and significant step towards real repair and the establishment of Israel in the territories of the homeland that belongs to it.”

Since the 1967 Six Day War, Israel has established around 140 settlements on land Palestinians see as the core of a future state, where more than 500,000 settlers now live. Besides the authorized settlements, groups of settlers have built scores of outposts without government permission.

The parliamentary vote, one of the first major steps by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, came days after Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed on moves to curb violence and incitement amid escalating tensions.

Palestinian leaders predictably deplored the decision – claiming it will further facilitate alleged Israeli intentions to assert sovereignty over the West Bank districts of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley.

“This is a condemned and rejected decision and it is contrary to all resolutions of international legitimacy,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a Spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“I think when they return to the so-called Homesh and other settlements, this will assure that this government is going on in its plan to take and annex the lands, and continuing its open battle against the Palestinian people,” said Wasel Abu Yousef, who has led the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) since 2007 and was elected to the Executive Committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) in 2018.

The Hebron-born Yousef was previously a member and part of the General Command for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terror group.

He went on to call on the international community to officially define the disputed land  – including east Jerusalem – as “Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Such a move would be in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, adopted in 2016 with support from member states including France, the United Kingdom and Ukraine. The administration of former United States President Barack Obama refused to exercise veto power to favor its ally Israel just four weeks before leaving office, and instead abstained from the vote in a stunning development.

Also condemning the Knesset amendment to the Disengagement Law was the European Union, calling it “counter-productive to de-escalation efforts” and “a clear step back” from a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We call on Israel to revoke this law and take actions that contribute to de-escalation of an already very tense situation,” an EU spokesperson said in a statement.

The US State Department took a rare step by summoning Israel’s Ambassador Michael Herzog for a meeting, where Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman expressed the importance of all parties refraining from actions or rhetoric that could further inflame tensions ahead of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Jewish observance of Passover and Christian commemoration of Easter.

Moreover, State Department Deputy Spokesman declared that “the United States is extremely troubled” by the decision, and that it “strongly urges Israel to refrain from allowing the return of settlers to the area covered by the legislation.” This, he said, would be “consistent” with policy of late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, under whom the 2005 Gaza Disengagement was carried out, as well as with “the current Israeli Government’s commitment to the United States.”

Underscoring that the US has been “clear that advancing settlements is an obstacle to peace and the achievement of a Two-State Solution,” the State Department’s Deputy Spokesman said that position “certainly includes creating new settlements, building or legalizing outposts, or allowing building of any kind on private Palestinian land or deep in the West Bank adjacent to Palestinian communities, all of which would be facilitated by this legal change.”

Asserting that the Knesset action “also represents a clear contradiction of undertakings the Israeli Government made to the United States,” Patel insisted, “Nearly 20 years ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on behalf of Israel affirmed in writing to George W. Bush that it committed to evacuate these settlements and outposts in the northern West Bank, in order to stabilize the situation and reduce frictions” and “inconsistent with Israel’s recent commitments to de-escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions.”

In a blunt response, the head of the Shomron Regional Council – a body responsible for a bloc of settlements in the West Bank – Yossi Dagan retorted that the US Secretary of State should “shove his nose in his own business.” While Washington is a close and important friend of Jerusalem, he added, “when it comes to the reality in the settlement areas, the US administration severely misunderstands.”

A statement issued from office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed that “the Knesset decision to repeal parts of the Disengagement Law brings to an end a discriminatory and humiliating law that barred Jews from living in areas in northern Samaria, part of our historic homeland,” adding, “it is no coincidence that senior figures in the opposition have supported this law over the years.”

In an apparent effort to alleviate tensions vis-à-vis the Biden Administration, the statement continued, “The Government has no intention of establishing new communities in these areas.”

It is worth noting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was among the few members of the Likud party who voted in favor of the Disengagement Law on 16 February 2005.

Despite the Israeli leader’s pledge, the Palestinian Authority (PA) Foreign Ministry blasted Netanyahu’s words as “further evidence of his colonial, racist and expansionist mentality.” The body further insisted that the Prime Minister’s statement was directly connected to comments by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who over the weekend denied the existence of the Palestinian people.