Five European nations have publicly criticised Israel’s plans to ramp up the building of new homes for settlers in the West Bank just weeks after a historic normalisation between two Gulf countries and the Jewish state raised expectations that expansion into occupied territories would slow.
The UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain said they were “deeply concerned” by Israel’s decision to approve nearly 5,000 new units, adding that it was “a counterproductive move in light of the positive developments of normalisation agreements reached between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain”.
The UAE and Bahrain signed the deals to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state at the White House last month. The UAE billed the US-brokered Abraham Accords as a means to curb the territorial acquisitiveness of Israel’s leaders.
This week’s approvals bring the year-to-date figure to just above 12,000, the highest since US president Donald Trump took office in 2016. The UAE has been silent on the latest announcements. Bahrain has also made no comment.
Emirati leaders have previously pointed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s delaying of his plans to annex some 60 per cent of the West Bank into Israel’s borders as evidence of the leverage the deal gave them over Israeli actions towards the Palestinians.
“This just proves the whole fallacy that somehow this normalisation agreement was going to stop annexation or Israeli action — all it shows is that normalising with Israel gives it a green light to do whatever it wants, build settlements, destroy Palestinian homes and steal Palestinian land,” said Diana Buttu, a lawyer who worked on prior negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group, said the new building units were evidence that while Mr Netanyahu’s “de jure annexation may be suspended, the de facto annexation of settlement expansion is clearly continuing”.
The annexation plans, part of a US-sponsored peace deal that was rejected by the Palestinians for parroting Israeli negotiating positions, envisioned a historic expansion of Israeli territory, including all of Jerusalem. The UAE made the shelving of annexation a condition of the deal. Settlers, a key base for Mr Netanyahu’s rightwing bloc, have since demanded the prime minister step up building in the West Bank. The government, which is facing protests over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, is predicted to collapse before the year ends.
“The mission of developing the communities in Judea and Samaria [the biblical names for the West Bank] continues to be one of the key issues for the State of Israel and the entire nation in this era,” Shlomo Ne’eman, a leader of the settlement blocs nearest to Jerusalem, said in a statement. “Sometimes, we take our prime minister to task, which we feel is justified, as a result of our disappointment [over annexation]. But now something tangible is happening.”
East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the rest of the West Bank came under Israeli control in the 1967 war, and Israeli prime ministers across the political spectrum have encouraged the expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, long condemned by the international community as illegal and in violation of international law.
The US softened its stance last year, and followed up with recognising Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights.
Some 650,000 Israeli Jews now live in the occupied territories, up from some 100,000 in 1993, when Israel signed the Oslo Accords with the PLO.
During Mr Trump’s tenure, the US has dramatically shifted its policy on settlements and the rights of Palestinian refugees, and moved its embassy to Jerusalem, recognising it as Israel’s capital. “If we are going to live another four years with President Trump, God help us, God help you and God help the whole world,” Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said earlier this week in a meeting with European legislators.