Israel settlement approval brings tension to new high as security situation deteriorates

Several Arab leaders condemn decision to formalise nine West Bank settlements

Armed police watch over protesters during an anti-government rally near the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on Monday. EPA
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Israel’s cabinet approved the legalisation of nine West Bank settlements on Sunday, a move that is likely to further inflame already high tensions at home and abroad.

The government says the decision is in response to a recent spate of terror attacks in East Jerusalem, including a car ramming at a bus stop that killed two Israeli children and an adult.

The decision comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to implement harsh security measures and strengthen settlements in a cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Speaking to The National, Hanna Swaid, a politician for the Arab-Israeli party Hadash, described the decision as “hush money that Netanyahu is paying to extreme-right parties in his government”. Settlements expert Dror Etkes said it was an attempt “to give the Israeli public a quick sense of satisfaction that something is being done”.

There are rising fears among Palestinians that the situation regarding settlement expansion could deteriorate. Palestinian analyst Nour Odeh said the decision was an “upsetting affirmation of [the government’s] agenda, but I don’t think it’s the worst that they have to offer yet”.

“Palestinians in these areas feel like lame ducks. They can be attacked at any moment by the army or by the settlers – there’s very little difference at this point between them except the uniform,” she added.

Leaders and senior officials from a number of Arab states have expressed strong opposition to the “unilateral” move, saying it could have consequences for the entire region.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were among those in attendance at the meeting in Cairo where the statement was released, on Sunday.

“Egypt warns of the consequences of this decision, which will stoke the already very tense situation in the occupied territories in a way that threatens to broaden the sphere and frequency of violence,” Egypt's foreign ministry said on Monday. Egypt was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

It also called on Israel to immediately stop its “unilateral measures” that include demolishing Palestinian homes, arrests and security raids.

The Israeli government will have to prove at the highest levels that the move to recognise the outposts is legal. If successful, 10,000 new homes would become officially recognised.

The shaky legal standing of the drive opens another potential showdown between Mr Netanyahu's administration and Israel’s Supreme Court. The two are currently at loggerheads about government-proposed legislation to drastically weaken the court’s power.

The administration will have to prove that the settlements are on what Israel considers to be land owned by the state. Many of the enclaves in question are built on private Palestinian land.

Mounting public anger within Israel is also putting pressure on Mr Netanyahu. Mass crowds gathered outside the Israeli Knesset on Monday and strikes are taking place throughout the country in opposition to the proposed legal reforms.

On Saturday, a sixth weekly protest against the proposed reforms drew more than 200,000 people, according to organisers. If that is the case, it would mark the highest turnout since the demonstrations began.

The government is also dealing with a deteriorating security situation. At the weekend, Israel carried out air strikes on Gaza in response to a rocket fired from the Palestinian enclave.

The Israeli army said it struck a complex holding “raw materials used for the manufacturing of rockets belonging to the Hamas terrorist organisation”. There were no reported casualties from either side.

On Monday, a Palestinian man, identified in local media as Amir Bustami, was killed in an Israeli raid to arrest two members of the Nablus-based Lion’s Den terror group, who stand accused of killing an Israeli soldier in October.

The Palestinian Red Crescent reported that seven were also wounded during the clash.

The escalating situation is drawing attention beyond Palestine, Israel and the Middle East, particularly regarding the legal reforms.

French President Emmanuel Macron brought up the issue when he hosted Mr Netanyahu at the beginning of the month, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hinted at US worry over the plans during a recent visit to the region.

On Saturday, US President Joe Biden called for consensus in his first comments on the matter, via The New York Times.

Last week, CIA director William Burns warned that Israel appears to be on the cusp of a “third intifada”, a term to describe previous Palestinian uprisings. The last two resulted in the deaths of more than 5,000 Palestinians and about 1,400 Israelis.

In a speech on Sunday night, Israeli President Isaac Herzog called for urgent compromise. Speaking from the presidential residence in Jerusalem, Mr Herzog said the country was on the verge of “societal and constitutional collapse”.

Updated: February 13, 2023, 5:48 PM