Israel exploiting coronavirus for settlement expansion, says Palestinian official

Israel exploiting coronavirus for settlement expansion, says Palestinian official
3 min read
12 March, 2020
Hanan Ashrawi has accused the Israeli government of using the COVID-19 lockdown in the West Bank to expedite annexation of Palestinian land and increase ‘settler terrorist attacks’ against its residents.
Israeli soldiers wore protective masks during a raid on an anti-settlement sit-in on Wednesday [Getty]
A senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) launched a scathing attack on the Israeli authorities' response to the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, accusing it of exploiting the lockdown in the West Bank to accelerate the annexation of Palestinian land while protecting Israeli settlers' attacks against Palestinian civilians.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO's Executive Committee, cited Wednesday's raid on a sit-in held by Palestinian residents of Beita to defend the nearby Mount Al-Arma from being seized by settlers.

The incident saw Israeli forces firing live rounds at protesters, killing 15-year-old Mohammed Hamayel.

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"As the international community seeks to cooperate in combating the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Israel is exploiting the situation to expedite de facto annexation of Palestinian land while providing protection and cover to armed Israeli settlers in their terror attacks against defenseless Palestinian communities across the occupied West Bank," said Ashrawi, in a press statement published by WAFA news agency.

Ashrawi pointed to the construction of a new road connecting the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, which only Israelis will be allowed to use.

Israel is pushing forward with construction despite warnings from the international community that it will de-facto annex the large collection of settlements surrounding East Jerusalem and disrupt the territorial contiguity of the West Bank.

Ashrawi added that Israeli settlers have "sharply increased their terrorist attacks" against Palestinian residents of the West Bank, under protection of Israeli forces.

"Most recently, Israeli settlers have repeatedly raided Mount Al-Orma near Nablus in an attempt to take over the area with the active participation of the Israeli army. The Palestinians of Beita-Nablus have faced repeated assaults with courage and determination despite the great cost and suffering they have endured," she said.

Ashrawi also criticised the closure of the Bethlehem area - the West Bank's COVID-19 epicentre - which has been used by settlers to launch attacks, most recently uprooting at least 1,200 olive and vine trees, which Ashrawi called "environmental terrorism".

She also accused the Israeli military of stepping up expansion of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, "to complete the siege and isolation of occupied Jerusalem".

The Gush Etzion bloc surrounds most of East Jerusalem in a ring-like formation, and is home to some 75,000 settlers. The Israeli housing ministry said it aims to increase its population to 500,000 by 2026.

While the world is focused on tackling the dangerous spread of coronavirus, "one must not ignore the toxic Israeli campaign seeking to destroy Palestinian statehood and the chances of peace", Ashrawi concluded.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has regularly voiced his intention to annex West Bank settlements, prompting anger from the international community. 

US President Donald Trump gave annexation the green light in the recently published peace plan for Israel-Palestine, dubbed the "Deal of the Century" and widely denounced for prioritising Israel's demands over those of the Palestinians.

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