by Jack Moore 24 February 2015 Newsweek
A labourer stands on an apartment building under construction in a Jewish settlement known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim, in an area of the West Bank that Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed to the city of Jerusalem, October 28, 2014. REUTERS
A 10-year record number of tenders were issued by the Israeli government for the construction of settlements in the occupied Palestinians territories last year, a new report by an Israeli settlement watchdog has revealed.
According to the report, in 2014, Israel authorised 4,485 tenders, an increase on the 3,710 issued in 2013 and a marked increase on the 858 issued in 2007.
The report, released by the anti-settlement group Peace Now ahead of the Israeli election scheduled for March 17, also revealed that new settlement construction has increased 40% under the third government of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Construction of 3,100 units began in West Bank settlements in 2014 in comparison with 2,243 units in 2013 and just 995 in 2012.
Peace Now’s findings also reveal a marked increase of settlement tenders being issued in the mainly Arab-populated East Jerusalem, with 3,699 issued under Netanyahu’s second term and 4,255 issued in his current term, an increase of 15%.
The figures for Israeli settlement construction have continued to rise despite U.S. criticism of the continued issuance of tenders. Washington last month described the latest batch of tenders as “illegitimate” and “counterproductive” to peace in the region.
Grant Rumley, researcher of Palestinian and Jordanian politics at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), says the continued increase of settlement tenders and new construction work may be caused by the lack of repercussions from allies, such as the United States, deterring Israel.
“[The Israeli government] know they can do it,” he says. “They know they can issue these tenders and there is very little pushback. The retaliation rarely extends past the rhetorical.”
Daniel Nisman, president of the Tel-Aviv-based geopolitical risk consultancy The Levantine Group, says that the decision to issue tenders and construct settlement units are “based on tactical, internal considerations” within the Israeli government.
The timing of the report’s release can almost certainly be attributed to the upcoming Israeli elections and also Palestine’s impeding membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on April 1, Rumley adds.
“I think everyone is going to say it is because of the Israeli elections. But I also think this came out before April 1 when the Palestinians become members of the ICC. It’s going to add to the political playbook so to speak.”
In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council presented findings which claimed that Israel had repeatedly violated international law in its policy of settlement creation and requested a removal of all of the West Bank’s settlers and “cease all settlement activities without preconditions”. Israel refused to cooperate with the council and Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, dismissed the report as giving “Israel a raw deal”.
Peace Now did not respond to a request for comment. A representative for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) - the body responsible for implementing the Israeli government’s policies in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - declined to comment.
Israeli Separation Barrier threatens to Divide Bethlehem Christians
Snowfall is seen around a section of the controversial Israeli barrier that runs along the Shuafat refugee camp in the West Bank near Jerusalem, January 8, 2015. AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS
Christians near Bethlehem are facing an exodus if an extension to the West Bank separation barrier goes ahead as proposed.
The Israeli government wants to extend the barrier through the Cremisan Valley, which lies between Bethlehem and Jerusalem in the West Bank.
The proposed route would involve building on private agricultural land belonging to 58 Christian families and would leave a monastery and convent run by the same Catholic order on separate sides of the barrier.
Construction of the West Bank barrier began in 2002 at a cost of $2m per kilometre. It was planned to stretch for 670km and consists of a concrete base with a five-metre high wire and mesh fence, with rolls of razor wire and a four-metre ditch on one side.
As of 2012, the Geneva Initiative reported that 434.9km of the barrier had been constructed. The Israeli government maintains the purpose of the barrier is to protect citizens from would-be Palestinian suicide bombers, but the project was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004 for inhibiting the Palestinians' right to self-determination.
An Israeli Ministry of Defence spokesperson said alternative plans had been submitted keeping the convent and monastery on the same side. A decision on the extension from the Supreme Court of Israel is expected imminently.
The director of the Society of St Yves, a Catholic human rights organisation providing legal representation for the convent, Raffoul Rofa, says that the inevitable impact of the barrier would be to force Christians out of the region.
“Many people have emigrated and building the wall in the Cremisan Valley would hasten this process,” he says. “It’s another nail in the coffin.”
Rofa claimed that more than 100 Christian families had already left the Bethlehem district in recent months due to fears over the barrier combined with political and economic instability.
The mayors of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the so-called ‘Christian triangle’ of the West Bank, met with the pope in the Vatican on February 11 to raise the issue.
Vera Baboun, the mayor of Bethlehem and a Palestinian Catholic, said a tipping point had been reached for Christians in the region. “They want to build the separation wall in the Cremisan Valley and then expropriate the lands that belong to Palestinian Christians. If that happens, the whole area will be suppressed from the grip of the wall, and the first to go will be Christians,” she told Christian news service Agenzia Fides after the meeting with Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state.
Fr Iyad Twal is the parish priest of Our Lady of Fatima church in Beit Sahour, on the east side of the Bethlehem district. He said that the plans would lead to poverty by annexing the agricultural land which families depend on for their livelihood.
“Everyone will be affected because it’s the only green land left in Bethlehem. Can you imagine the wall surrounding us and inside we have all the houses and no green land and no open space?” he said.
Several international delegations have visited the Cremisan Valley in recent months. On January 29, EU delegates visited the area, with head of the delegation to Palestine, John Gatt Rutter, declaring that the EU considered the building of the barrier on private Palestinian land to be illegal.
On January 13, Dr Alastair McPhail, the British Consul to Jerusalem visited the area with 40 bishops and heads of churches. “I am deeply concerned about the proposed route of the separation barrier in the Cremisan Valley,” he says. “If built, the wall would have a serious impact on the religious community of Cremisan. The Palestinian communities in this area would also lose direct access to their agricultural land, schooling and healthcare facilities.”
A spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, COGAT, which oversees Israel’s activities in Palestine, could not comment on why the security barrier was being extended but said: “As far as we know, the crossing of Christians to the Cremisan takes place in a daily basis.”
An Israeli Ministry of Defence spokesperson said there were two alternatives to the current planned route, both of which allow free access and movement between the monastery and convent, but they would await the decision of the court before proceeding.