Among the reasons for the United States’ sharp condemnation of Israel’s announcement that it would build an additional 98 new homes in the Shomron – and the reason that State Department spokesman Mark Toner hinted at a linkage between the announcement and the recently signed military aide agreement between Israel and the U.S. – is because Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised President Barack Obama that there would be no new settlements established in Yehudah and Shomron for the next ten years, over the life of the agreement, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan told Kol Chai radio in an interview Thursday.
Despite that, Ben-Dahan said, the aid agreement “does not make Israel a hostage of the United States. That aid is provided because the U.S. understands that it is important that Israel defend itself. Even if Netanyahu promised not to establish ‘new settlements,’ these homes are not a new settlement but an expansion of an existing one.”
At issue is the government authorization last week that the homes would be built at the outpost of Shvut Rachel outside Shilo, in the Binyamin region. The homes are meant for the residents of Amona, who the High Court has said must vacate their homes by the end of 2017, after it ruled in favor of Arabs who claim the land that the homes are built on as theirs.
The Amona saga goes back to 2006, when the High Court ruled that the outpost located in the Binyamin region was built on land claimed by Palestinian families. In February of that year, police and officials of the Civil Administration evacuated and razed nine buildings, facing down 4,000 Israeli protesters in a traumatic operation that saw dozens of people, including three MKs, injured.
Since then, the state has sought ways to prevent further demolitions, although various defense ministers have insisted that the remaining homes on the site will be demolished. The original settlers of Amona claim that the land was purchased from Palestinians, a claim disputed by Peace Now, which organized a petition of the claimants to demolish the homes.
The High Court had previously ruled that houses built on land claimed by Palestinians, even if those claims are unsubstantiated, must be demolished and cannot be rebuilt for as long as a decade, as evidence is gathered regarding ownership. The court in 2014 reaffirmed its earlier ruling and insisted that all the buildings on the site be demolished.
In an unusually harshly worded condemnation of the Israeli announcement, Toner said Wednesday that the U.S. “strongly condemns the Israeli government’s recent decision to advance a plan that would create a significant new settlement deep in the West Bank.” The new neighborhood would “further damage the prospects for a two-state solution. The retroactive authorization of nearby illegal outposts, or redrawing of local settlement boundaries, does not change the fact that this approval contradicts previous public statements by the government of Israel that it had no intention of creating new settlements. Such moves will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from many of its partners, and further call into question Israel’s commitment to achieving a negotiated peace,” Toner added.
The Foreign Ministry denied the accusations, saying that “the 98 housing units approved in Shilo do not constitute a ‘new settlement.’ Israel remains committed to a solution of two states for two peoples. … The real obstacle to peace is not the settlements — a final status issue that can and must be resolved in negotiations between the parties — but the persistent Palestinian rejection of a Jewish state in any boundaries.”
The American condemnation raised the ire of MKs on the right. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told Army Radio that “Israel does what is best for it. This announcement is somewhat out of proportion. I think the U.S. should concentrate on how to save Syrian citizens in their civil war” instead. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said that Israel was not violating any commitments, and that “the settlements are not the cause of the conflict, so halting construction will not solve anything. The decision to build 98 homes to replace those in Amona is legitimate.” MK Betzalel Smotrich (Jewish Home) called the condemnation “a black mark on the Americans and the White House. Those who wish to be seen as the leaders of world democracy must respect the democratic decision of the Israeli people and its government. Those who wish to lead the free world must avoid attempting to deny the independence of Israel.”
Meanwhile, the Amona Protest Committee said that despite the authorization for construction of the 98 new housing units, they had no intention of moving. “No one is leaving their home of 20 years to move to a different home,” the group said. “This would not happen anywhere else in the world. This attempt to make us move is the exact meaning of the word ‘transfer,’ to rip apart the ties between children, their homes, and familiar lives, and transfer them with all the trauma that entails, essentially turning them into refugees.”
According to the protest committee, “There is a reason that transfer is seen as a war crime, not just the act of moving people from one place to another. That is the reason the High Court recently ruled that Bedouin tribes who squatted on Jewish-owned land in the Negev could not be removed, saying that ‘even though these tribes could legally be removed, the letter of the law does not provide justification for everything.’ That is true for us as well. We are not potatoes or chess pieces that can be moved around at will.”