This month, Israel announced two sweeping land grabs in the northern and central occupied West Bank, prompting anti-settlement group Peace Now to warn that the Israeli government had reverted to its major land confiscation policies pre-dating the 1993 Oslo accords.
On 21 March, Israeli authorities began notifying Palestinian residents of the Nablus-area villages of al-Sawiya, al-Lubban al-Sharqiya and Qaryout that their land would be declared “state land” and become part of the Israeli settlement Eli.
The villages had been appealing the inclusion of their lands in the settlement to Israel’s high court since 2014.
A week prior to that, Israel announced it would confiscate 2,342 dunams (579 acres) of land near Jericho and along the corridor between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, a valuable thoroughfare for the tourism industry.
According to Peace Now, the land will be used to construct hundreds of new housing units, as well as tourist sites and souvenir shops along the road.
Within this area are also 20 villages of the Bedouin Jahalin tribe, which Israel has been trying to forcibly displace.
Israel intends to build thousands of settler housing units in the area between Jerusalem and Jericho, in the occupied West Bank, which it calls E1.
The new Israeli colonies would further isolate East Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied West Bank and divide the West Bank from north to south.
Last December, Peace Now reported it had obtained documents under the freedom of information law that showed the housing ministry was planning to build thousands of homes in E1.
The United Nations criticized this month’s land seizure near Jericho, calling the move an “impediment to the two-state solution.”
The UN reiterated the long-standing position that “settlements are illegal under international law,” but other than occasional verbal admonishment, the international organization and its member governments have taken no action to hold Israel accountable.
“In a way, they are cutting off the West Bank with this latest announcement because the lands are located in a strategic area,” Jamal Juma, the coordinator for the Stop the Wall grassroots campaign, told Middle East Eye.
“They lie next to the Green Line on one side and extend all the way to the Jordan Valley,” he added, using a common term for the 1949 armistice line that separates Israel as it was established in 1948 from the West Bank, which it occupied in 1967. “If carried out, this will mean that the entire north of the West Bank will be cut off from the middle of the West Bank.”
Less than two years ago, Israel announced the seizure of 1,000 dunums near Bethlehem, eliciting similar disavowals – and a similar absence of concrete action – from US and UN officials.
Peace Now said then that there had not been such a large land seizure in the West Bank since the 1980s.
Peace Now, an organization as committed to preserving Israel as a Jewish-majority state as it is to ending the occupation of the West Bank, has maintained for years that despite a tripling of the settler population since the Oslo accords, the two-state solution remains viable.
Peace Now has based its argument on the fact that most of the growth has occurred within so-called settlement blocs that would remain under Israel’s control according to hypothetical “land swaps” which would retroactively legitimize its land grabs.
By expanding the definition of these settlement blocs, Israel can conceal the extent to which its control over the West Bank has continued to deepen in spite of the peace process.
Yiftah Curiel, the spokesperson for Israel’s London embassy, recently claimed that “90 or 95 percent of the settlements are within what’s called settlement blocs … So, I think that the settlements are not the main obstacle perhaps to peace as some would like to view them.”
Indeed, most of the land on which settlements now stand was declared “state land” by Israel’s military during the 1980s, after Israel’s high court ruled that settlements could not be built on private Palestinian land expropriated through military orders.
So instead, after that 1979 ruling, Israel began expropriating large swaths of Palestinian land simply by declaring it “state land.”
Following the Oslo accords, the Israeli government stopped officially establishing new settlements and slowed down on issuing declarations of “state land.”
This led to the spread of “outposts” – Israeli settlements that are illegal according to Israeli law, but have nonetheless been enabled through secret government assistance followed by retroactive approval.
Israel also continued to officially expand existing settlements, often onto lands that had been expropriated previously.
All Israeli settlements are illegal according to international law.
Since 1999, Israel has continued to declare tens of thousands of dunums of land in the West Bank “state land” through a process of supposedly reexamining declarations made in the 1980s, as well as land with “undefined ownership.”
Through this process, Israel has retroactively legitimized at least two dozen outposts.
For example, last October, Israel announced that it intended to authorize a cluster of five West Bank outposts containing hundreds of buildings spread across six square kilometers.
Occupation authorities revealed the step in response to a petition filed by human rights group Yesh Din calling for the immediate evacuation of the settlers because they were living on Palestinian land and had been involved in violent attacks on Palestinians.
The recent land confiscation near Nablus is being described by Israeli authorities as a border correction, not a confiscation, because it is based on the findings by the so-called Blue Line Team that re-examines the earlier “state land” declarations.
Between 1999 and 2011, the Blue Line Team reviewed 195,000 dunams of land and classified the “overwhelming majority” as state land.