Israel breaks ground on first new illegal West Bank settlement in 25 years

Construction began on Tuesday for the first new illegal Israeli settlement to be built in the occupied West Bank in 25 years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced.

“Work has begun, as I promised, on a new community for Amona evacuees. After decades, I have the privilege to be the first prime minister to build a new community in Judea and Samaria,” he said, using an Israeli term for the occupied West Bank. “There has never been nor will there be a better government for the settlement movement than our government.”

Almost a month ago, the Israeli army announced the jurisdiction of the illegal Amichai settlement, after its plan was advanced by Netanyahu as compensation for residents of the illegal settlement outpost of Amona, demolished in February due to it being built on private Palestinian lands.

While an estimated 196 government recognized Israeli settlements scattered across the Palestinian territory are all considered illegal under international law, such outposts are considered illegal even under Israeli domestic law. However, earlier this year, Israel passed the outpost Regularization law, which would pave the way for the retroactive legalization of dozens of Israeli settler outposts.

Meanwhile, plans for Shvut Rachel East — another illegal Israeli settlement to be established between the existing Shvut Rachel settlement and what is to be Amichai — were advanced in February, also under the pretext of compensating residents of the Amona outpost, despite Amona’s evacuees refusing the relocation plan.

Shvut Rachel East has been referred to as a “neighborhood of Shilo settlement,” by Israeli authorities and not considered an entirely new settlement, despite its considerable distance from the built up area of Shilo.

“Under the disguise of ‘compensation’ to the Amona settlers, two new settlements, located one next to the other, are now in the making,” Israeli NGO Peace Now said of Amichai and Shvut Rachel East last month.

Noting the strategic location of the two new settlements between Shilo and Shvut Rachel to the west and a cluster of several illegal outposts to their east, Peace Now wrote that Amichai and Shvut Rachel East “are located in a region that serves as focal point of settler land takeover and settler violence, preventing Palestinians from reaching their lands.”

Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has also argued that settlers acted as “envoys” of the Israeli government in pushing land grabs in the occupied Palestinian territory, allowing the government to officially detach themselves from the settlers’ violent and illegal actions, while avoiding or blocking any legal penalties that could be imposed on the settlers, except in the most extreme of cases.

Peace Now has meanwhile emphasized that the development of Amichai and Shvut Rachel East was not the first time Israeli authorities have pushed for settlement expansion under the guise of “compensating” Israeli settlers evicted from their residences constructed on private Palestinian land in the West Bank.

Leading up to the demolition of the illegal Migron outpost in 2012, the Israeli government offered the settlers alternative housing in two separate locations, and despite the settlers’ refusal of the offer, the Israeli government also went ahead with the plans.

However Amona’s evacuees have enthusiastically embraced the plan to move to Amichai, a site chosen by the residents themselves as part of their agreement with the government. “We welcome the beginning of work and we pray for it to continue uninterrupted,” Avichai Buaron, a representative of the Amona evacuees, told Israeli new site Ynet.

“The entire public expects the prime minister not to allow any elements — whether they are leftist activists, legal officials or (the Israeli army) — to stop the work. This success — the establishment of a new community in Judea and Samaria — cannot become a failure and a farce. The public is already disappointed. Responsibility rests with the government and its leader.”

During a ceremony held to commemorate the 50th year of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory, Netanyahu pledged to “protect the settlement enterprise,” reassuring his extremist settler support base that the settlements would continue in “all parts of Judea and Samaria” and that Israel had continued to build “both inside and outside the settlements.”

There are currently 102 housing units planned for Amichai, plans for which were announced earlier this month along with some 1,400 other settlement units. The plans are the first step in advancing approximately 2,500 new Israeli housing units in the occupied Palestinian territory.

The plans also came as Israeli Minister of Housing and Construction Yoav Galant advocated for 67,000 additional illegal settlement housing units to be built across the West Bank.

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi has denounced Israel for the planned expansions. “Clearly, Israel’s creeping annexation of Palestine is escalating because of the international community’s inability to translate its verbal statements and condemnations into serious and concrete actions to bring Israel to account,” Ashrawi said.

The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS) released data on Monday showing a 70 percent rise in construction of settlements during the past year compared to previous year, with Peace Now warning of increasing numbers in the coming months.

Marking 50 years since Israel first annexed East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, NGO Amnesty International announced on Wednesday that it was launching a campaign to convince the international community to implement a full boycott of illegal Israeli settlements across the occupied Palestinian territory.