Israel takes advantage of the crisis in Gaza to trigger the colonization of the West Bank | International

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“The Jewish people have the exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The Government will promote and develop settlement in all its parts.” The phrase – using the biblical concept that includes at least current Israel and Palestine and that appears in the agreement of the Government coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – takes different forms today, a year and a half later, in these desert regions. hills of the West Bank, in which each inhospitable hectare ends up becoming a battlefield for a colonization that Israel has silently accelerated, taking advantage of the noise generated by the invasion of Gaza.

“Look, this is new. I wasn’t there a few weeks ago. With him there are 14 since October alone,” says Dror Etkes, the Israeli activist who best knows the expansion of the settlements, in a long tour of the area. Since February, the Executive has declared more than 1,097 hectares “state territory” (which makes it easier to build or expand Jewish settlements there). The figure now makes 2024 a record year since the nineties without having even reached its equator.

Colonization in the West Bank has been leaving unpublished figures for years, but the silence of the war in Gaza and a Government in which religious nationalism – closely linked to the promotion of settlements – occupies a key place have formed a perfect mix for its explosion. “Our right to the Land of Israel is anchored in the Bible,” Netanyahu, a secular Jew who increasingly nods to the religious right in the form of biblical references, stressed this Tuesday.

Barriers next to a military base with the phrases “revenge” and “death to the Arabs” in the West Bank.Antonio Pita

Etkes himself, who has been following the colonization work for three decades and directs the NGO Kerem Navot, finds it difficult to keep up with the pace of developments. It is increasingly common to see a handful of caravans at a strategic stop. They are secretly set up by religious ultra-nationalists who usually say that they do not need any property document other than the Bible, in which God gives these lands to the Jewish people. These groups of young people know three things today: that theirs are in the Government; that their new colony will survive, even if it violates Israeli legislation itself; and they just need patience. Mini-settlements often end up receiving institutional (more or less covert) and private protection and support. Authentic dormitory cities were also a handful of houses decades ago.

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In February, the Civil Administration, the Ministry of Defense body that manages the day-to-day operations of the military occupation, declared 264 hectares between the settlements of Maale Adumim and Keidar, east of Jerusalem, state land. A month later he added another 800, in the Jordan Valley, to which a few dozen more were added. To understand the dimension, the total is slightly less than half of all hectares (2,400) declared state between 2018 and 2023.

The declaration as state land is based on an interested Israeli interpretation of a 19th century law, in Ottoman times, to use crops. Since international law prevents Israel, as an occupying power, from confiscating land for its own benefit, it rescued Ottoman law for convenience to appropriate those lands in the West Bank that remain uncultivated for years. It can happen because their owners became refugees, because the army does not allow them access to them, because they fear attacks by settlers… Isaac Rabin’s government detained them in 1992, when negotiating the Oslo Accords, and Netanyahu took them back that way. same decade, in his first term. Thanks to this legal interpretation, Israel has declared 16% of the West Bank state lands, which it has occupied militarily since it took it in the Six-Day War of 1967, according to data from Peace Now, the country’s main pacifist NGO.

Abandoned towns

A long black pipe starts from a military base. He arrives at the settlement of Malajei Hashalom, to which he supplies water, even though it is prohibited in theory because Israel considers it illegal. Just above the ruins of Ein Ar Rashash, a Bedouin village whose inhabitants abandoned it for fear of attacks by settlers, a settlement has emerged: Gal Yosef. Etkes estimates between 15,000 and 20,000 hectares that Palestinians have not been able to access since October.

A barrier of stones and sand prevents the more than 3,000 inhabitants of Douma from getting on the road. It is, along with the smaller Mugayer, the only Palestinian town standing between Ramum, to the west; the city of Jericho, near the border with Jordan; and the settlement of Maale Efraim. “A year ago you could see Bedouin shepherds here and now it is empty,” Etkes recalls. Only the remains of their old shanty towns, which were taken to less dangerous parts of the West Bank, or new attempts at settlements, can be seen.

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Dror Etkes, in his vehicle, with a map of the West Bank.Patricia Martínez (EFE)

On the Alon highway, which crosses the West Bank perpendicularly and between signs and barriers in Hebrew with phrases such as “revenge” or “death to the Arabs”, there are no cars with green or white license plates, those of those Palestinians without permission to access Israel or to other areas of the West Bank under its control, such as East Jerusalem. Partly it is out of fear after the murder nearby a month ago of an Israeli teenager, which unleashed a wave of attacks against Palestinians, Etkes explains.

Last month, with the embers of the escalation between Iran and Israel and the focus on protests at US universities over an invasion that has left more than 35,000 dead, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich ordered the ministries connect to infrastructure, provide municipal services and build public buildings to some 60 small colonies that the country itself considers illegal. It is the application of a decision from last year in which the Government calls for taking the necessary measures to “connect to essential infrastructure, build public and educational buildings” in certain settlements that “the Government intends to act to regulate.” Some were already connected, but through nearby settlements or infrastructure considered temporary.

Israeli military vehicle at the entrance to the Malajei Hashalom settlement, in the West Bank.
Israeli military vehicle at the entrance to the Malajei Hashalom settlement, in the West Bank.Antonio Pita

Although less noisy and popular than Itamar Ben Gvir, the head of National Security who followed him on the electoral list, Smotrich is the far-right with the most power in the Executive. Not only because he is the hand that rocks the money, but also because, in negotiations with a Netanyahu desperate to return to power, he won a position in the Ministry of Defense that gives him broad command over civil affairs in the West Bank.

The NGO Paz Ahora defined its decision as a “legalization through the back door”: it avoids international condemnations and legal problems and protects them from demolition, which this Government has virtually stopped applying, but the next one might not. According to local media, the minister’s document includes instructions such as the establishment of educational institutions, the construction of roads or related to day-to-day matters, such as insurance funds.

An Israeli tends cattle along a West Bank road.
An Israeli tends cattle along a West Bank road.Antonio Pita

The decision equates de facto fifty outposts to the settlements. Although all settlements, in which some 700,000 people live, are illegal under international law, Israeli political vocabulary usually distinguishes between “neighborhoods” (the large, residential ones in East Jerusalem), “settlements” (those in the West Bank that it considers legal, generally established decades ago) and the “outposts”, smaller and also illegal for Israel. They began in the nineties, after the Oslo Accords.

The expulsions of Palestinians have also skyrocketed since October due to fear of attacks by settlers, increasingly indistinguishable from soldiers, following the massive mobilization of reservists and the ease of obtaining weapons. Almost 20 localities, with more than 1,000 inhabitants (generally Bedouins who belong to the same family clan and live from agriculture and livestock), have dismantled their houses, dismantled their precarious constructions and looked for a less exposed site. It is a phenomenon—often with the connivance or passivity of soldiers—closely linked to the expansion for years of colonies in the form of farms, which allow controlling a lot of territory with little effort. They can be seen from time to time at the tops of the road, as well as a young man in the usual attire of religious nationalists taking care of the livestock.

The increase in attacks on Palestinians or left-wing activists, the growing sense of impunity of the settlers and, in general, the prevailing atmosphere since the Hamas attack on October 7 (the deadliest day in Israel’s history) leads to Etkes to take precautions. He does not own a vehicle, lest the settlers become familiar with him; and he does not want the renter or his face to appear in the photos, to make it difficult for him to be identified. The stops are short. In one, two armed security guards approach to investigate what he is doing. There is tension and they insult him when he returns to the car, but things don’t get any worse. “I have the right accent and skin color,” he says of being an Israeli Jew.

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