THE ISRAELI NGO Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project has documented settlement building and expansion on the West Bank for several years, utilising official statistics and analysis of aerial photographs. Its latest report of settlement activity for 2019 suggests that the construction of units on the West Bank is 25 per cent higher under Donald Trump than during Barack Obama’s tenure in office.
In September 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to annex the Jordan Valley — territory adjacent to the River Jordan — which constitutes 22 per cent of the West Bank. Three months later, Mr Netanyahu said he would apply Israeli law to the area and praised Mr Trump for becoming become the first world leader “to recognise Israeli sovereign- ty over areas of Judea and Samaria”.
According to Settlement Watch, 12,768 Jewish settlers in the Jordan Valley are in possession of 95 per cent of the land. Conversely, 52,950 Palestinians occupy enclaves on five per cent of the territory. In 2019, four new outposts were established in the Jordan Valley, including Mitzpeh HaTo- rah for yeshiva students.
Most of the first major West Bank settlements after the Six Day War were founded not by national religious parties, but by the forerunner to Israeli Labour — solely as security settlements. Figures with political views as divergent as Arik Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin shared the belief that control of the Jordan Valley was militarily crucial to hold up any invading Arab army from the east, because it provided strategic depth and time for Israeli forces to mobilise.
The Allon plan — Labour’s chosen option for the West Bank after 1967 — proposed sharing the conquered territory with Jordan while maintaining control over the Jordan Valley. But in the half century that has elapsed, the original need for security has been replaced by the demand for religious fulfilment in locations of biblical resonance. The Settlement Watch report notes that 95 per cent of construction in 2019 took place in settlements that are either national religious or Strictly Orthodox Charedi.
Before the Six Day War, the demand of religious Zionists was essentially to live an observant lifestyle — to have kosher food and not work on Shabbat. Indeed, the pioneering religious Zionist party Hapoel Hamizrahi sup- ported partition in 1947, accepting the West Bank as a Palestinian state. While visits to places such as Hebron, Jericho and Nablus were important to them, living there was never an immediate priority.
The victory in the Six Day war propelled a new generation of Israeli-born religious Zionists to establish settlements in the conquered lands.
Nearly 40 per cent of construction starts in 2019 were in Charedi settlements — an irony, since Charedim are either non-Zionists or anti-Zionists, following the Hatam Sofer’s approach 200 years ago that God’s hand should not be forced in returning the Jews to the Promised Land, and that there should be no human intervention.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe of the early 20th century bitterly condemned the Zionist pioneers for substituting the holy Torah for crude nationalism. Yet the Charedim with large families need large homes where they can live separately. It is considerably cheaper to live across the Green Line in the West Bank, but still within commuting distance of Jerusalem. Thus in 2019 there was construction in Charedi settlements such as Beitar Illit and Agan HaAyalot.
Significantly, the Settlement Watch report noted that the broader Israeli public relates to the West Bank settlements neither ideologically nor religiously, but perhaps only specifically as a security buffer. They are clearly not flocking to live there.
Yet these same Israelis voted in droves for Mr Netanyahu in the past because he is seen as the guarantor of security. Any concerns about the prime minister’s espousal of the settlement drive is therefore a secondary matter — their concern is the safety of their families.
There are 121 outposts near larger settlements which have been established on the West Bank without government approval — illegal, accord- ing to the law of the land. Under Mr Netanyahu, such unauthorised settlements are allowed to remain as “farms” and subsequently retroactively legalised.
Mr Netanyahu vowed to ensure immediate approval by the Israeli cabinet for the annexation of the Jordan Valley within days of the publication of the Trump Peace Plan. This was suddenly cancelled for “technical reasons” — and the US view that it should be their president, not the Israeli pre- mier, who sets the timetable.
Since then the issue has quietly disappeared amid preoccupation with the coronavirus pandemic and Mr Netanyahu’s looming trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Whether the issue of annexation will return in these troubled times remains an open question.
Jewish Chronicle 3 April 2020