First new settlement, or just most recent?

Posted by Caabu on 23 Jun 2017

By Edmund Walton

23 June 2017

Israel announced on 29 March it will be building a new settlement in the West Bank, called Amichai. On 20 June building started in the northern West Bank, near the already existing settlement of Shilo. In the 50 years that Israel has illegally occupied the West Bank, more than 600,000 Israelis have moved there - motivated by a mix of ideology, religion and the low cost of living.

This triggered a spate of reports in the media, suggesting that Amichai is ‘the first new settlement in 20 years.’ If only this was true. It is a disingenuous description that belies an almost constant process of expansion. Amichai can only be called ‘the first new settlement’ if you conveniently choose to ignore the settlements in Jerusalem, in Hebron and the so-called “outposts” of which there are over 100.

For fifty years Israel has been expanding its settler population and its settlements. Currently, 42.7% of the total area of the West Bank is part of settlement local and regional councils.

Under international law there is no difference between settlements in East Jerusalem, Shilo, Amichai and Amona. All are settlements where Israel, as the occupying power, has transferred its own civilian population. How long a settlement has been there, how Israel chooses to define some as ‘legal’ and some as ‘illegal’ settlements makes no difference to the Geneva Convention.

Amichai may be the first settlement in 20 years to be officially recognised by Israel outside of Jerusalem and Hebron, yet plenty of unrecognised settlements have been built and thrived under Israeli protection.

The first residents of Amichai are settlers who have been removed from the illegal “outpost” of Amona. Outposts are small groups of settlers who take a hilltop in the occupied territories and squat on it, until they are removed, or, as is more likely, their presence there is normalised. Even during this period the Israeli army provides security and the Israeli government provides roads, electricity and water amongst other services, services that nearby Palestinian villages often lack.  Previously, tacit recognition was the norm; however, in February of this year, the Israeli parliament approved a bill to allow the retroactive expropriation of Palestinian property where Israeli settlements have been built.

Tens of outposts dot the West Bank, first a handful of caravans, then a military presence to protect them. Of course, the military needs electricity and water to operate, so the outpost is soon connected to the Israeli grid. As life becomes more comfortable, more settlers show up. Although initially small, some outposts grow into large towns that dominate the surrounding area. One of these is Ofra, originally a huddle of tents; it is now an illegal settlement of 4,000 people. When Ofra was built it was illegal under Israeli law but then it was subsequently authorised.

Very occasionally, Israeli police will remove settlers from ‘illegal’ outposts, but as in Amona, they can be promptly re-homed in equally illegal settlements.

Alongside the ‘outposts’, the established settlements (euphemistically called ‘neighbourhoods’ in East Jerusalem) have expanded at an alarming rate. As late as 1982, only 21,000 Israeli citizens lived in the occupied territories. In the space of 20 years, 400,000 settlers had moved in. This was achieved by slowly and surely expanding the existing settlements, not by dramatically building new ones like Amichai.

Building is one way to expand. Other methods have been used as well. In 2007, settlers in the city of Hebron took over the home of three Palestinian families by force. This home invasion was legalised by a supreme court decision in 2014. Evicting Palestinians from their homes also occurs in Jerusalem, where 81 Palestinian families are being evicted from their homes by radical settler groups, supported by Israeli courts.

Settlements have been strategically placed in the West Bank. New suburbs ensure control over occupied east Jerusalem, envisioned as the future capital of Palestine. The settlement city of Ariel sits on the largest freshwater aquifer in the West Bank. Amichai is no different.

To the west lies Shilo, a settlement that dominates fertile land between Ramallah and Nablus. To the east we find two outposts. How long until Israel declares that the two outposts and Amichai have grown into one bloc, and must therefore be granted ‘legal’ status as part of a recognised settlement?

The unlawful settlements and Israel’s policy of expansion and expropriation remain one of the primary obstacles to a just peace.

The international community has a responsibility to pressure Israel into conforming to the legal framework for its occupation of Palestine, and bring the occupation to an immediate end.

About the author:

Edmund Walton has worked for NGOs in Palestine and Greece. He is currently studying for a Masters in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Leiden.