Growing Israeli West Bank settlements test US position ahead of Biden visit

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Steps away from a cluster of Palestinian tents and shacks in the northern Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, trucks were working in full force to prepare for the construction of a school for Israeli settlers.

The settlement of Mehola is trying to expand, as demand has become very high, Zohar Zror, 32, a resident, told Reuters.

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Largely out of the public eye, Israeli settlements are expanding across the occupied West Bank, raising Palestinian fears of displacement and posing a test for US opposition to such building ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit this week.

In a Washington Post op-ed published on Saturday, Biden said the United States has rebuilt ties with the Palestinians and is working with Congress to restore about $500 million in funding for the Palestinians. His administration has also pledged to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem closed by his predecessor Donald Trump.

But that has done little to satisfy Palestinian demands for US support for an end to Israel’s decades-long occupation.

While the administration has expressed strong opposition to Israeli settlement expansion, which it said “deeply damages the prospect for a two-state solution,” settlement construction has gone ahead apace.

Meanwhile, the search for a solution involving an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, which the United States and other countries see as the best basis for a lasting peace, has stalled.

“They don’t want to leave any Palestinians here,” said Salah Jameel, 53, a Palestinian farmer in the Jordan Valley. “They want to take the land.”

Most countries regard settlements Israel has built on territory it captured in a 1967 Middle East war as illegal. Israel disputes this and has settled some 440,000 Israelis in the West Bank, citing biblical, historical and political ties to the area, where 3 million Palestinians live under military rule.

In May, the Israeli government approved 4,400 new homes for Jewish settlers. Plans for a further expansion of settlements, that will effectively cut through the area Palestinians hope will form the basis of a future state, are set to be discussed after Biden’s visit.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment about the expansion of West Bank settlements.

The US Embassy’s Palestinians Affairs unit referred questions to the White House.
David Elhayani, outgoing head of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ main umbrella organization, said it is time the Palestinians accept that there will be no Palestinian state.

“The settlement enterprise has taken off, it cannot be stopped now,” he told Reuters.

Noise

As Israel deepens its normalization with Arab countries in the region, it remains unclear what steps the United States is willing to take to discourage its ally from further entrenching the occupation.

Biden’s upcoming visit “can impact the amount of noise Israel is making about settlement expansion but not on the construction itself,” said Dror Etkes of Kerem Navot, an organization that monitors Israeli policy in the West Bank. “The entire political system (in Israel) is mobilized to protect the settlement enterprise,” he said.

The first settlements in the Jordan Valley date from the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war. A fertile area of orchards and date plantations on the border with Jordan, it was seen by Israeli planners as key to creating a defensive buffer well to the east of Jerusalem.

Mehola, which was built in the late 1960s on Palestinian-owned land with Israeli government approval, is one example.

The military protection and the roads, water and power infrastructure underpinning settlements stand in stark contrast to conditions in nearby Palestinian villages.

But Israel strongly rejects accusations from international and local rights groups that the settlement enterprise has created a system of apartheid.

Data collected by Israeli authorities shows a trend of expanding Israeli presence.

In the area of the West Bank where Israel has full control and where most Jewish settlements are located - a zone referred to as Area C under the Oslo Peace accords agreed in the 1990s - only 33 building permits for Palestinians have been approved in the last five years, Israeli Deputy

Defense Minister Alon Schuster told the Knesset plenum in February.

During that time, more than 9,600 housing units were started for Israeli settlers in the West Bank, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Palestinian Mahmoud Bisharat, 40, has no expectations from Biden’s visit. Still, he told Reuters he hopes the US administration will take stronger action to stop Israeli settlements and “the dispossession of Palestinians.”

“We have been on this land before 1967, the least they can do is protect our rights,” he said.

Read more: Family of Palestinian-American killed in West Bank lashes out at US President Biden

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