While the recent announcement of the confiscation of 4000 dunams is bad news for the already squeezed Palestinian communities and for any peace process, there are other actions in the area that even more threatening. The land around the Palestinian village of Khallet Annahlah and the activity of settlers who have built an outpost there is a greater threat to any sustainable peace.
Map of Bethlehem area showing settlements – From Peace Now – Click to enlarge
This site, which covers 1,341 dunams, was first declared state land in August 2004, making it part of the land of Efrata settlement with a plan to build 2,500 housing units on this site. The Palestinian landowners appealed this decision in the Israeli courts and the case has continued since then. In October 2013 a new outpost was established on the site, and in July 2014 a new road was illegally opened by the settlers in the outpost in the middle of the night. The previous Bethlehem team were witness to several incidents in the area such as destruction of local Palestinian farms and attending important joint Israeli Palestinian demonstrations in the area – for details see here.
At the start of September 2014 the Israeli High Court made a decision dismissing all the claims made by the local Palestinians. The landowners had sought to have the declaration overturned but there arguments were dismissed, with some significant facts not even being considered by the High Court. However the court raise some technical legal questions and has suggested returning the case to the appeals committee to have these answered and has sought the Israeli State’s consent to do this and no decision has yet been made, as such the future of the declaration remains uncertain and could yet take several years. For detailed discussion on the case and the ruling see here.
While the Palestinians sit in a legal limbo waiting for a decision from the court the settlers have shown by their actions that they mean to take this land regardless of what the court says and have been developing it as if they already own it. The site has grown from an agricultural area into a small outpost and the occupants have been increasing the number of buildings on the site, building illegal roads, and aggressively patrolling this area with their own armed security. In the last week our team accompanied a contingent from Combatants for Peace, an Israeli peace organization, and the Palestinian Authority on a tour of the area, when we were confronted by settlers who assaulted some members of the group. The settlers throughout this time have acted with the close support and protection of the Army, as can be seen in the report from the previous Bethlehem team detailed above.
While these, and all settlements in the West Bank are illegal under the Geneva conventions, this is a worrying development with serious implications for a just and lasting peace. The area under question is east of the established route of the separation wall, and as such marks an expansion not just of the number of settlers but also an expansion in the size and geographical reach of the not just Efrata but also the whole of the Gush Etzion settlement block. This would also block off Bethlehem from the south and given that Bethlehem is already blocked in from the north (by the wall and settlements), from the west (also by the Gush Etzion bloc) and from the east (by an Israeli bypass road) this would be a complete encircling of Bethlehem. Both the expansion of the bloc and the encirclement of Bethlehem would make any two state solution and land swap impossible to achieve, if this settlement is finally built it will kill any hope for peace. Worryingly, there is settler activity in other areas around Bethlehem making the situation worse which I will look at look at in my next blog post.
Peace Now and Combatants for Peace, given the importance of this piece of land for future peace negotiations, have both been active on the issue of this piece of land. They have a petition here to sign and share.
If this was the actions of one small group of settlers this would still be a significant problem, however there are many other groups of settlers working across the Bethlehem area to build other outposts and expand existing settlements all of which contribute to the cutting of Bethlehem and the undermining of any possibility of peace.