Israel advances 1,000 new settlement homes after four killed

Benjamin Netanyahu says he will respond harshly to Tuesday's deadly Palestinian gun attack and 'build up our country'

Tension in the West Bank has been running high in recent months. EPA
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday afternoon announced that his government will quickly advance the planning of 1,000 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Eli, according to a statement from his office.

The announcement comes a day after Palestinian gunmen killed four settlers at a petrol station just outside the settlement. The attack was praised by Gaza-based militant group Hamas, although they did not directly claim the attack.

In a press release announcing the move, Mr Netanyahu said “our answer to terrorism is to strike at it forcefully and build up our country”.

Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, widely viewed to be the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, contains several ardently pro-settlement politicians.

On Monday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated his opposition to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, a day after the country's conservative government approved legislation to speed up their construction.

The announcement of the expansion came despite Washington, Israel’s most important ally, urging the country’s government recently to delay plans to expand a deeply controversial project just east of the contested city of Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, Washington reiterated its opposition to settlement expansion.

"We've been very clear about this that unilateral actions such as this one such as settlement advancement, will only incite tensions and undermine the prospect of a two state solution," said US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel.

On Tuesday evening, a group of settlers set up camp at the illegal West Bank outpost of Evyatar, which for years has been a source of tension between settlers and the Israeli military, who frequently repel attempts to resettle the area.

Settler attacks injured at least 34 people overnight on Tuesday after Palestinian properties were attacked, apparently in revenge for the attack that killed the four Israelis. Settlers later targeted the town of Turmus Aya, north of Ramallah, where one person was shot dead as settlers set cars and homes alight.

The attack prompted a strong rebuke from Washington.

"We are appalled at ongoing settler attacks in Turmus Aya and other villages resulting in a civilian death, injuries and property damage," said the US Office of Palestinian Affairs.

”We call for Israeli authorities to immediately stop the violence, protect US and Palestinian civilians, and prosecute those responsible."

The events drew parallels with a settler rampage in Hawara in February, which came in the aftermath of a gun attack in which two Israelis were killed.

UN anger

UN officials have called for international protection for Palestinians in light of the settler attacks.

“Palestinians under Israeli occupation do need protection,” said Francesca Albanese, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied territories.

“Brutality, coming either from Israeli settlers or from the army, will not stop simply because the system is not designed to protect the Palestinians. Rather the contrary.”

Settlement expansion is intensifying under the new government and threatens to plunge the West Bank into even deeper violence.

Analysts have told The National that this week's move to accelerate settlement construction – which cuts the need for political approval out of the planning process – disrupts the long-standing system that has been in place since the Oslo Accords.

The new process reduces the “red tape” required to approve settlement construction, which under the current system has to be approved by the defence minister.

“[Mr] Smotrich has basically taken away authorities that were always, or at least since the Oslo process, in the hands of the defence ministry,” said Mairav Zonzsein, senior analyst on Israel-Palestine for the International Crisis Group.

Currently acting as Finance Minister, Mr Smotrich was handed sweeping powers over the West Bank by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in February and was named as a minister within the defence ministry, with authority over civilian affairs in Area C of the West Bank.

The announcement came ahead of a meeting of Israel's Supreme Planning Council next week, which is set to discuss approving 4,560 housing units in various areas of the West Bank, although only 1,332 are up for final approval.

“Smotrich and others on the far right came into this government with a very clear platform of consolidating and even formalising Israeli control of Area C of the West Bank and at the same time dispossessing and displacing Palestinians. This is part of that agenda and part of that process,” Ms Zonzsein added.

“We're going to see not only expansion of settlements but mechanisms with which to legalise and make permanent those settlements.”

She also cited a recent repeal of a ban on returning to West Bank settlements evacuated in 2005.

Updated: June 21, 2023, 9:05 PM