Israel's annexation drive is behind West Bank escalations

Israel's annexation drive is behind escalations in the West Bank
6 min read

Ben White

20 June, 2023
Israel’s government is openly pursuing annexation of the occupied West Bank through settlement expansion, the bolstering of settler violence and an intensification of violence by its occupation forces, writes Ben White.
Smoke billows from an Israeli rocket's impact explosion during an army raid in Jenin in the occupied West Bank on June 19, 2023. [GETTY]

Three ongoing developments make it crystal clear that this Israeli government is determined to carry out an unprecedented campaign of colonisation and annexation in the occupied West Bank.

The first element is the large-scale construction and expansion of housing units in the illegal settlements across the West Bank, alongside the systematic and steady increase in legal developments designed to advance the annexation of occupied territory.

Next Monday, Israeli occupation authorities will meet to promote 4,799 housing units across 18 different settlements in different parts of the West Bank. One of the plans will see an unauthorised outpost receive retroactive formalisation within an existing settlement (Eli).

With this imminent meeting, Israeli officials will have advanced 12,149 housing units in settlements through the planning process in less than half a year. The entire total for 2022 was 4,427 units.

Meanwhile, such figures do not include the “unprecedented level” of “settlement advancements” in occupied East Jerusalem, where some 16,000 housing units have been advanced since the beginning of 2023, with thousands more expected in the coming weeks.

Alongside this energetic expansion of settlements, and their associated infrastructure, particularly roads, the Israeli government has also accelerated measures intended to further de facto, or even de jure, annexation of West Bank territory.

Most recently, on 18 June, the cabinet voted to shorten the planning process for advancing settlement construction, and, to assign authority in this regard to Bezalel Smotrich, finance minister but more relevantly in this scenario also a minister within the defence ministry.

Earlier this month, Israel’s housing minister met with settler officials, and gave his backing to the formal inclusion of settlements in a national strategic housing plan.

These are but the latest steps in a series of moves intended to shift various powers and responsibilities over settlements from the military to the civilian authority.

Legal rights NGO Adalah published a report on these moves, which have included formalisation of outposts and direct application of Israeli domestic law in the West Bank. Its legal director, Dr. Suhad Bishara, described what is unfolding as “an unequivocal programme by the government of Israel to annex parts of the West Bank and institute full Israeli sovereignty over the land.”

The second element is surging and escalating settler violence, directed at Palestinian communities with a degree of ferocity that – protected and enabled by the Israeli military – has become ‘normalised’ with respect to how routine it has become.

As of mid-June, there have already been at least 441 attacks by settlers that resulted in property damage or casualties – an average of more than two such attacks per day, every day. This violence knows no geographic bounds, taking place in locations as diverse as the Southern Hebron Hills, the Ramallah governorate, and the hills and valleys around Nablus.

While Israeli occupation authorities have always effectively enabled settler violence by ensuring that the perpetrators enjoy almost total impunity, this current intensification of attacks is additionally disturbing for the direct role of the military in facilitating and even participating in such violence.

In Surif, the southern West Bank, for example, settlers attacked the village for three straight days in April, and when residents defended themselves, Israeli soldiers attacked them too. It has been a similar story in locations such as Burqa, where settlers – accompanied by soldiers who also opened fire on villagers – have carried out bursts of attacks in the same week.

In some places, settler violence and harassment is making life untenable for Palestinians.

Last month, an entire community in Ein Samiya was wiped off the map, when its remaining residents departed after years of violence by settlers. The forced displacement of dozens of families is not without precedent in recent times; as UN OCHA pointed out, 81 Palestinians had to leave their communities of Wadi as Seeq and Lifjim, while some 100 people left Ras a Tin.

The third element at play here is the escalation in violence by Israeli occupation forces, who stepped up a campaign of raids, arrests, and various punitive measures since early last year.

The regular and deadly raids into the heart of Palestinian cities, towns, and refugee camps are aimed at crushing a resurgence in activity by armed factions, particularly in the northern West Bank.

It is a resurgence which did not come out of ‘nowhere’, but has its origins in a number of factors, including the gloomy horizons of young people growing up under military occupation and surrounded by expanding settlements, the weakening and deteriorating status of the Palestinian Authority, and the impact of a number of developments in the last two years, such as the Dignity Uprising, Gilboa prison escape, and emergence of local resistance groups in Jenin and Nablus.

The Israeli military’s ‘Break the Wave’ campaign, however, has arguably achieved the opposite of its intended effect, at least judging by the number of shootings targeting Israeli forces and settlers in the West Bank, or the intensity of confrontations sparked when Israeli forces raid towns and camps.

For the far-right and religious-nationalist dominated Israeli government, such a phenomenon threatens and limits the freedom of action it seeks with respect to expanding settlements and pursuing its annexation agenda; both with respect to the direct impact of these armed groups in threatening soldiers and settlers, particularly in the central-northern West Bank, and the indirect wider impact such groups can have on Palestinian political mobilisation.

This is why it is unsurprising to see growing calls from the settler base – in and outside of the government – for a large Israeli military offensive in the northern West Bank, one which may well materialise (Israeli media reports that the Shin Bet, for its part, is reportedly warming up to the idea).

Considered together, the expansion of settlements, incremental annexation moves, escalating settler violence, and Israeli military crackdown in the northern West Bank, all point to and reinforce the priorities of this current government – namely to build on the foundations laid by its predecessors so as to advance the annexation of the West Bank to an unprecedented and irreversible extent.

Ben White is a writer, analyst, and author of four books, including ‘Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel’.

Follow him on Twitter: @benabyad

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.