Ban lifted on Israelis’ return to evacuated West Bank settlements

March 21, 2023
File photo showing Israeli soldiers guarding an entrance to the site of the evacuated settlement of Homesh (May 27, 2022). — courtesy SOPA Images
File photo showing Israeli soldiers guarding an entrance to the site of the evacuated settlement of Homesh (May 27, 2022). — courtesy SOPA Images

JERUSALEM — Israel’s parliament has voted to allow Israeli citizens back into the sites of four settlements in the occupied West Bank which were evacuated at the time of the disengagement from Gaza in 2005.

There has been international criticism of the bill, as the settlements were built on what the High Court of Justice ruled was private Palestinian land.

It still has to be signed by an Israeli military commander to be enforced. But it risks further inflaming tensions with Palestinians ahead of Ramadan.

Some 600,000 Jews live in 140 settlements built since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. Most of the international community considers the settlements illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

Almost 18 years ago, Israel’s parliament passed a law mandating the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as well as the evacuation of four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank — Sa-Nur, Ganim, Kadim, and Homesh.

Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government said the latter move would help “provide Palestinian territorial contiguity” in the West Bank and make it easier for Palestinians to live a normal life.

Israelis were banned from entering the evacuated area without the permission from the Israeli military.

However, a group of settlers were able to establish a Jewish religious school and an unauthorized outpost at Homesh, which the new coalition government —the most right-wing and nationalist in Israel’s history — has been pushing to legalize.

On Monday night, lawmakers voted to repeal parts of the 2005 law so that Israelis could return to the sites of the evacuated settlements.

“The State of Israel tonight began its recovery process from the deportation disaster,” tweeted Yuli Edelstein, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party who sponsored the bill.

“This is the first and significant step towards real healing and settlement in Israel’s homeland territories, which belong to it.”

But the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now said the return of settlers to the area would be “a huge security burden and a focus of settler violence”.

“This decision will also pave the way for establishing many more outposts in an area that is now almost entirely Palestinian,” it added.

Last month, the Israeli government announced the legalization of nine unauthorized outposts and approved the planning and building of more than 7,000 new housing units in existing settlements.

But at a meeting with Palestinian Authority officials in Egypt on Sunday, it reaffirmed a commitment to stop discussion of any new West Bank settlement homes for four months, and to stop authorization of any outposts for six months.

It was part of a series of measures designed to calm tensions ahead of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which is scheduled to start later this week and coincides with the Jewish festival of Passover and the Christian festival of Easter.

This move by Israeli lawmakers will be viewed as being at odds with that pledge. There has been a surge of violence between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem this year.

At least 88 Palestinians — militants and civilians — have been killed by Israeli forces, and on the Israeli side, 16 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks, all civilians, except for a paramilitary police officer.

On Monday, there was widespread condemnation of a claim made by Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich that “there is no such thing as Palestinians”.

Smotrich, the leader of the far-right ultranationalist Religious Zionism party and a key figure in the governing coalition, told a conference in Paris that Arabs “invented fictitious people in order to fight the Zionist movement”, and that the remarks “needed to be heard in the White House”.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh strongly criticized the speech, saying it provided “conclusive evidence of the extremist, racist Zionist ideology that governs the parties of the current Israeli government”.

Jordan, meanwhile, summoned the Israeli ambassador over a map used on the conference stage, which appeared to depict the country and the Palestinian territories as part of Israel, violated a 1994 peace treaty.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry later stressed in a tweet that there had “been no change in the position of the State of Israel, which recognizes the territorial integrity of the Hashemite Kingdom”.

Earlier this month, Smotrich called for the Palestinian town of Hawara in the northern West Bank to be “wiped out” after two settlers were shot dead there by a Palestinian gunmen and settlers attacked the town and nearby villages in response. He later said he regretted the comment, and called it “a slip of the tongue”. — BBC

March 21, 2023
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