Can the US stop Israel’s plan to expand settlements?

Can the US stop Israel’s plan to expand settlements?

 Can the US stop Israel’s plan to expand settlements?

Israel passes controversial settlement law

The Israeli government has approved a new two-year budget that solidifies the ruling coalition’s religious and pro-settlement agenda, sparking protests outside the parliament building. The budgets for 2023 and 2024 were passed after overnight debates and weeks of negotiations, with a vote of 64-56. The budget amounts to 484 billion shekels ($131 billion) for this year and 514 billion shekels ($139 billion) for next year, as stated in a parliamentary announcement.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich defended the budget, stating that it benefits all citizens of Israel, regardless of their political or religious affiliations. However, critics argue that the allocations favor ultraorthodox institutions at the expense of secular Israelis, exacerbating divisions within the country. The budget includes substantial funds for extreme pro-settler parties, with $68 million promised to the far-right party Otzma Yehudit for settler developments in the Negev and Galilee regions.

Smotrich has expressed his intention to increase the number of West Bank settlers, and the budget facilitates this by establishing the “Arnuna Fund.” This fund, funded by municipal taxes that settlements are exempt from paying, aims to support settlements in various areas such as infrastructure, tourism, and agriculture. Critics have raised concerns about the legality and fairness of allocating funds to settlements, given international law restrictions.

In summary, the Israeli government’s new budget, passed amid protests, reflects the ruling coalition’s religious and pro-settlement priorities. It includes significant funds for settler parties and provides support to settlements through the Arnuna Fund, which exempts them from contributing to municipal taxes.

Increase in raids 

The Israeli army has in recent months launched dozens of raids on Palestinian refugee camps, killing civilians in the process.

During a raid in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus on Monday, May 22, the Israeli army killed three Palestinians and injured seven others. Four of the injured individuals were struck by live ammunition, with one in critical condition, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. As Palestinians resisted the raid, Israeli forces also employed tear gas. The military operation reportedly followed an incident in which an Israeli soldier was allegedly injured by a car in Nablus.

The three Palestinians killed in the raid have been identified as Mohammed Zaytoun (32), Fathi Rizk (30), and Abdullah Abu Hamdan (24). This year, Israeli security forces have killed at least 156 Palestinians, including 26 children, in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The dawn raid in the Balata camp involved a large deployment of Israeli soldiers, accompanied by special forces, armored vehicles, and bulldozers. Simultaneously, another raid occurred in the Jenin refugee camp near Nablus. Thirteen Palestinians were arrested during the operations, and at least seven houses were damaged, with one completely demolished.

Last week, Israel approved an additional illegal settlement project in the Homesh area near Nablus. The approval was granted by the Israeli military’s central command chief and followed an amendment by the Israeli Knesset earlier this year that permitted Israelis to resettle four illegal settlements in the northern occupied West Bank. The far-right government under Netanyahu, which was newly elected at the time, also passed laws legalizing nine outposts and approving the expansion of various other settlements.

Will Israel launch a mass expansion 

The recent budget expansion combined with the increase in approval of new settlements clearly signals Israel’s plan to significantly expand the scale of its illegal settlements in the near future.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close circle attempted to reassure the Biden administration that Israel was not engaged in a significant expansion of West Bank settlements, despite indications to the contrary from the IDF and a senior government member.

The messages conveyed by Netanyahu’s top aides demonstrate an acknowledgment of the reemerging discontent in Washington regarding the hardline government’s policies in the West Bank. Netanyahu still seeks an invitation to the White House and US assistance in securing a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.

While Netanyahu has maintained that the Palestinian issue should not affect Arab countries’ decisions to normalize relations with Israel, analysts believe that significant changes in the West Bank are bound to complicate these efforts. Last week, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich reportedly instructed several government offices to prepare for doubling Israel’s settler population, currently around half a million, emphasizing its importance to the new coalition.

Shortly after, Yehuda Fox, the IDF Central Command chief, signed a military order lifting the ban on Israelis entering Homesh, one of the four settlements evacuated by Israel in 2005 as part of the Gaza Strip withdrawal. According to an Israeli official, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides expressed his objections to both developments during conversations with Israeli officials.

Israeli officials responded by assuring their US counterparts that Smotrich’s goal of reaching one million settlers was not an official government policy. They also insisted that there were no plans to establish a new settlement in Homesh, confirming a report on the Walla news site.

However, the Biden administration remains unconvinced, pointing out that the outpost is situated on privately owned Palestinian land, as stated by the Israeli official. Netanyahu’s aides have tried to explain that the military order aims to initiate the process of relocating the outpost to a nearby location, off Palestinian land.

Nonetheless, the Biden administration fundamentally opposes Israeli expansion in the West Bank, regardless of whether the land in question is considered public or private, making such justifications unlikely to sway their position.

This however is unlikely to stop the realization of such Israeli plans, as the White House’s warnings have failed to stop the escalation of violence and settlement expansion so far in 2023.

Hazem Zahab

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