Israel Claims Nearly 1,000 Acres of West Bank Land Near Bethlehem
JERUSALEM — Israel on Sunday laid claim to nearly 1,000 acres of West Bank land in a Jewish settlement bloc near Bethlehem — a step that could herald significant Israeli construction in the area — defying Palestinian demands for a halt in settlement expansion and challenging world opinion.
Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes the construction of settlements in the West Bank, said that the action on Sunday might be the largest single appropriation of West Bank land in decades and that it could “dramatically change the reality” in the area.
Palestinians aspire to form a state in the lands that Israel conquered in 1967.
Israeli officials said the political directive to expedite a survey of the status of the land came after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in June while hitchhiking in that area. In July, the Israeli authorities arrested a Palestinian who was accused of being the prime mover in the kidnapping and killing of the teenagers. The timing of the land appropriation suggested that it was meant as a kind of compensation for the settlers and punishment for the Palestinians.
The land, which is near the small Jewish settlement of Gvaot in the Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, has now officially been declared “state land,” as opposed to land privately owned by Palestinians, clearing the way for the potential approval of Israeli building plans there.
But the mayor of the nearby Palestinian town of Surif, Ahmad Lafi, said the land belonged to Palestinian families from the area. He told the official Palestinian news agency Wafa that Israeli Army forces and personnel arrived in the town early Sunday and posted orders announcing the seizure of land that was planted with olive and forest trees in Surif and the nearby villages of Al-Jaba’a and Wadi Fukin.
The kidnapping of the teenagers prompted an Israeli military clampdown in the West Bank against Hamas, the Islamic group that dominates Gaza and that Israel said was behind the abductions. The subsequent tensions along the Israel-Gaza border erupted into a 50-day war that ended last week with an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire.
The land appropriation has quickly turned attention back to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and exposed the contradictory visions in the Israeli government that hamper the prospects of any broader Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, condemned the announcement and called for a reversal of the land claim, saying that it would “further deteriorate the situation” and that all settlement was illegal.
Though Israel says that it intends to keep the Etzion settlement bloc under any permanent agreement with the Palestinians and that most recent peace plans have involved land swaps, most countries consider Israeli settlements to be a violation of international law. The continued construction has also been a constant source of tension between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its most important Western allies.
The last round of American-brokered peace talks broke down in April. Israelsuspended the troubled talks after Mr. Abbas forged a reconciliation pact with the Palestinian Authority’s rival, Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist. American officials also said that Israel’s repeated announcements of new settlement construction contributed to the collapse of the talks.
Yair Lapid, Israel’s finance minister, who has spoken out in favor of a new diplomatic process, told reporters on Sunday that he “was not aware of the decision” about the land around Gvaot and had instructed his team to look into it. “We are against any swift changes in the West Bank right now because we need to go back to some kind of process there,” he said. He added that the Israeli government was now talking to the Palestinian Authority about the situation in Gaza, “and this is a good thing.”
But Yariv Oppenheimer, general director of Peace Now, said that instead of strengthening the Palestinian moderates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel “turns his back on the Palestinian Authority and sticks a political knife in the back” of Mr. Abbas, referring to the latest land appropriation. “Since the 1980s, we don’t remember a declaration of such dimensions,” Mr. Oppenheimer told Israel Radio.
Israeli officials said that the land declaration Sunday was open to judicial review and that interested parties had 45 days in which to register objections.