Israeli Settlements and Evictions

I ended my blog on the normalization agreements by offering a boost for the blend of interests and idealism in the conduct of foreign policy. David Tal’s study of “United States – Israel Relations (1953-1957) Revisited,” in Israel Foreign Relations (28:1) (Spring 2021, 24-46) makes the same argument and applauds President Dwight D. Eisenhower who achieved precisely the correct mixture of both. “Eisenhower aimed to preserve and increase American influence in the Middle East in a way that would not put Israel at risk, but would respond to concerns voiced at home about his policies toward Israel and the surrounding nations. Furthermore, the administration’s approach was…evidenced by their policy of “friendly impartiality” toward Israel, attentiveness to Israel’s military and economic needs, and sensitivity to the views of American Jewry.”

How should America deal with the Israeli policy of expanding settlements as part of its creeping annexation? Soon after taking office in 2009, Barack Obama asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlement growth; he asked specifically and personally when they met in Washington on 19 May 2009. Obama had already met King Abdullah of Jordan on 21 April and met Abbas after his meeting with Netanyahu. Obama told all three that, for America, a two-state solution was a priority.

However, Netanyahu refused to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state. But, as Obama recorded in his recent memoir (A Promised Land), “We began by calling for a temporary freeze in Israel’s construction of new settlements in the West Bank, a significant sticking point between the two parties, so that negotiations might proceed in earnest.” (631) Obama understood that, “the explosion in settlements amounted to a slow-motion annexation of their land and stood as a symbol of the Palestinian Authority’s impotence.” (632)

Obama thought that the stronger party (Israel) should make the first move. Obama encountered a full press lobby to counter his pressure on Netanyahu as well as his carrots to reinforce Israel’s security with support for the Iron Dome project. As Obama wrote, “the noise orchestrated by Netanyahu had the intended effect of gobbling up our time, putting us on the defensive, and reminding me that normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister – even one who presided over a fragile coalition government – exacted a domestic political cost that simply didn’t exist when I dealt with the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, or any of our closest allies.” (633)

Eventually, after first agreeing to support a two-state solution, two months later Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to a freeze on new settlements for ten months, but one excluding Jerusalem. (633) When 1,600 housing permits had been issued for East Jerusalem, Abbas considered the freeze a sham, insisted on a total freeze only to be rebutted by Netanyahu that all of Jerusalem was Israeli. However, under pressure from Mubarak and King Abdullah, Abbas finally agreed to enter into talks when there was only a month left in the suspension of the construction freeze. Abbas, though he had previously put down the freeze as irrelevant, now insisted it be continued. Netanyahu refused. That ended that effort to relaunch peace talks.

Was it simply a matter that interests and ideals could not be welded at that time? Or was the problem Obama. In his book, replete with critical self-awareness, he had considered that possibility. Did he lack Truman’s and Eisenhower’s “friendly impartiality”? Possibly. When Obama reflected on his dinner with Abbas, Abdullah, Maubarak and Netanyahu, he thought their easy familiarity was an act, an insincere ritual performance. It was a pantomime. The leaders lacked resolve. They were also all committed to basing foreign policy on realism, on a “world without illusions.”

What about his own? After all, he claimed to be adopting an impartial viewpoint, but deep down he did not really believe that Israel’s security interests were also America’s and thought that support for Israel, as long as it continued its occupation of the West Bank, damaged American interests. The absence of peace with the Palestinians made America less safe. Given that starting point, how could it be possible to wed interests and ideals when the interests of the convenor and Israel were so incongruent?

For the last four years the world has witnessed a dramatic shift in American policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the Obama era.

  • America no longer characterizes settlements across the 1967 Green Line as either illegitimate or illegal.
  • Obama certainly believes that US support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank damaged US interests. That support, he writes, “continued to inflame the Arab community and feed anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world;” the Trump administration held the opposite position without any ideals thrown in.
  • America recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
  • Trump proposed a peace plan that would effectively annex half of Area C in the West Bank to Israel.
  • Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, was the first American high- ranking official to visit a settlement in the West Bank.
  • Symbolically, the settlement chosen was one that overlooks Ramallah.
  • Pompeo announced that all goods manufactured in Area C of the West Bank under Israeli control will henceforth be marked as made in Israel.
  • In February 2018, when the Knesset voted to put Ariel University and other West Bank institutions under the control of the same accreditation body as other Israeli colleges and universities, the US extended scientific cooperation agreements to include Israeli institutions of higher learning in the West Bank – that is, Ariel University.
  • The US moved its embassy to Jerusalem.
  • American citizens born outside the Green Line in Jerusalem can now list “born in Israel” in their passports.
  • Trump turned his back on the Palestinians in numerous ways:
  • closed the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem
  • closed the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington
  • cut of all donations to UNRWA
  • cut off most USAID to the Palestinian Authority

How many of the Trump changes will Biden reverse? Joe Biden since he became U.S. President-elect has witnessed:

  • a flurry of settlement initiatives in East Jerusalem and the West Bank
  • the most significant is the issuance of invitations for tenders for 1,257 housing units in Givat Hamatos west of the settlement of Har Homa neighbourhood and next to Gilo which will cut off East Jerusalem from direct contact with the southern Palestinian territory;
  • the date for receiving bids was moved from two days before Biden takes office to three days after, either leaving an opening for American pressure to cancel the planned construction or as a challenge to Biden asserting “Here We Stand,” especially since Givat Hamatos is mostly within the Green Line;
  • Israel fast-tracked eviction proceedings in the contentious East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah (see below);
  • Israel increased home demolitions to which forty progressive Democrats objected when a new wildcat Palestinian village was demolished;
  • Mike Pompeo declared that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as antisemitic.

President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, have worked assiduously over the last four years, and accelerated their efforts since the election, to create irreversible facts on the ground to ensure an exclusively Israeli governed Jerusalem and a Greater Israel that would enshrine at least half of Area C in the West Bank as part of Israel.

As far as settlement development is concerned, there is also Atarot (cf. Joshua 16:2) that was originally destroyed by the Arab Legion in 1948, but now holds Israel’s largest industrial park. There are plans to build 11,000 housing units on the old Atarot Airport grounds. Tenders are expected for the E-1 (East Jerusalem-1) zone in the West Bank to create Mevaasseret Adumin within the boundaries of Ma’ale Adumin, one of the oldest and largest West Bank settlements, to ensure control of the highway running from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.

The general consensus is that it is unlikely that the Biden administration will expend any political capital to reverse many of these moves, especially given his appointments to his cabinet and the fact that the Democratic Party is still dominated by pro-Israeli liberals in contention with the forty-or-so progressive Democrats. Blinken has already declared that he will not make aid to Israel conditional, thereby surrendering his most powerful weapon of leverage.

What might be changed:

  • Reopen the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem, but making clear that this is not a political statement;
  • Reopen the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington;
  • Restore funding to UNRWA;
  • Restore some aid to the Palestinian Authority.

What might be considered. Settlements may be labeled as inadvisable and contrary to American policy without characterizing them as illegal or illegitimate. Biden is not likely to repudiate the Trump peace plan, but he is also very unlikely to advance it. The plan will be allowed to die on the vine. Biden may make some noises about the new expansion of settlements, but I doubt it. He has already far too much on his plate. In other words, the status quo ante will not likely be restored, but it is an open question whether the US will close its eyes to any significant Israeli initiatives.

However, the problem is not only the expansion of settlements which have an impact on the geographical area available for an independent Palestinian state and not just an autonomous polity under the oversight of Israel. House demolitions and confiscations are another dimension of the problem. I will only take up the issue of appropriation of properties, and even then, only in a sketchy way.

On 3 and 23 November, Israeli courts upheld the eviction of eight Palestinian families in the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem (affecting 45 people, including small children), and of the Sabbagh family in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem (affecting 32 members of the family, including six children). All family members were put at risk of forced removal, possibly out of East Jerusalem and into West Bank Areas A or B.

Over the last few years, evictions in East Jerusalem have increased apace, especially in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, 200 families are at risk. In Batan al-Hawa alone, 14 families have already lost their homes since 2015 following the 15 April 2015 decision of the Israeli Supreme Court affirming the applicability of the Absentee Property Law to properties in East Jerusalem belonging to Palestinians living in the West Bank, even though the ruling was to be applied “only in very rare and extreme cases.” All past expropriations were also retroactively approved. 80 other households have since faced possible eviction.  

How and why does it happen? The occupants do not have clear title to their homes. Either the properties prior to 1948 were owned by Jews or after 1967 were purchased by Jews. Owners are simply exercising their property rights and tenants have no rights from long term habitation. Further, the Custodian of Absentee Property has the power to issue a dispossession certificate to a person that, under the Absentee Property Law, is considered to be illegally holding an absentee real estate property. This continues to be the case even though the Klugman Committee in 1992 had identified 68 properties in East Jerusalem and strongly criticized how they were somehow transferred, with the assistance of the State of Israel, from Palestinians to settler organisations in East Jerusalem.  

The Israeli Knesset passed the ‘Law and Administration Procedures Law’ (‘the 1970 Law’) decreeing that residents of East Jerusalem are not absentees in relation to property within the annexed territory. However, Palestinians who lived outside the new municipal boundaries of Jerusalem who owned land or property inside the city limits, were defined as “absentees.”

If Jews can reclaim property from occupants, why can’t Palestinian refugees or even formerly displaced Palestinians do the same? What is a law for the Jew should be a law for the Arab. Except under the Absentee Law if one is a Palestinian no longer resident in Israel. The Absentee Property Law passed in 1950 deals with the governance of property of refugees. That property included not only buildings and land but chattels and bank accounts as well. The law enabled the Israeli government to take possession through a Trustee or Custodian and then dispose of that property to a Development Authority.

Thus, absentee properties in East Jerusalem are seized and sold to the Development Authority which usually resells it to settler organizations or may use it to build a police station or a post office. The only way to recover ownership for a Palestinian is to establish that he or she is a resident (not necessarily a citizen) of Israel or where relevant humanitarian grounds exist. The main application of the latter grounds applied to Palestinians resident in the West Bank in 1967, and thus not residents of East Jerusalem, but their properties were in East Jerusalem when the boundaries were extensively expanded.

“Present absentees,” that is Palestinians who fled or were forced to flee their properties but are still resident in Israel, were entitled to claim compensation provided the claim was filed before 1988. However, Palestinians resident in East Jerusalem who had owned property in West Jerusalem could not reclaim their property since it had been transferred to the Custodian and then sold to and by the Development Authority.

Following a series of cases taken before the court by Adalah, the Israel Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the Israeli Supreme Court confirmed the legality of continued confiscations in 2015, hence the new seizures and evictions since then. The law applied if the owners were Jews or were Palestinians who are not citizens of Israel and did not live in East Jerusalem. Further, Palestinian occupants who believed they had title to their property, when they applied for a permit to make an addition, renovate or rebuild or sought to sell that property, discovered they lacked clear title. The Custodian of Absentee Properties had to certify that they were the owners. Failure to get such a certificate meant the property could not be sold with clear title or even a permit acquired to undertake a renovation. Thus, inaction by the Custodian could effectively take away the rights of the owner even without any transfer of ownership.

It is hard to find many ideals of justice, though there are some, compared to the huge weight of Jewish interests in dealing with settlements and evictions.

For an excellent series of podcasts on the issue of settlements, go to https://open.spotify.com/show/4NG1pkSYlOWcrwaEbbHoOZ

For a great topographical view of settlements, see Shaul Arieli, Israeli Policy Forum.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s