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What's behind Israel's approval of construction permits for Palestinians?

The decision of the Israeli security Cabinet to grant 715 construction permits for Palestinians and 6,000 permits for settlers mocks the Palestinians while hailing settlement policy.
A view shows Palestinian houses in the village of Wadi Fukin as the Jewish settlement of Beitar Illit is seen in the background, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 23, 2019. Picture taken June 23, 2019.  REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma - RC1985B332A0

On July 30, Israel’s security Cabinet approved a plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to build 715 housing units in Palestinian villages in Area C of the West Bank, which is under Israeli control. Cabinet members were asked to approve the plan by phone — a procedural move generally reserved for urgent or unusual decisions. What made the ministers rush to vote on construction for Palestinians? The answer was apparently supplied the following day when President Donald Trump’s envoy Jared Kushner dropped in for a few hours to discuss his father-in-law’s peace plan for the Middle East with Netanyahu. The timing of the brief visit, at the height of Israel’s election campaign, was especially strange given its focus on a peace plan that no one wants. According to a July 31 report in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Trump plans to hold a peace summit at Camp David with Arab leaders even before Israel’s Sept. 17 elections, in a bid to help Netanyahu’s re-election.

Either way, resolving the mystery is a no-brainer. Uber-hawk Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich (of the United Right) voted in favor of the Palestinian permits but his unexpected support should come as no surprise. As he explained in detail, Israel plans to turn US pressure into a construction boom for the settlers. "Now, finally, thank God, comes the twist in the Israeli government's approach to the spread of the terrorist cancer within us.… Israel is forming a strategic plan to stop the creation of a Palestinian state inside the country," he wrote on Facebook. “For the first time, the State of Israel will implement its sovereignty and responsibility for the entire area.… No more approval of building plans proposed by the Palestinian Authority that serve its interest. For the first time, Israel will create a toolbox for enforcement and forceful neutralization of the Palestinian takeover plan."

It is unclear what Palestinian plan the minister had in mind given that only settlers are allowed to build in the West Bank and only the Israeli government encourages construction there and retroactively legalizes illegal outposts. According to a July 22 Peace Now report, 32 new outposts have been established since 2012, the majority after Trump was elected, and 15 existing outposts were legalized. A process of retroactive legalization has begun for 35 more. According to a 2018 report by the organization, which monitors settlement construction, in 2017 there was a 17% increase in building starts in the settlements compared with the average of the previous eight years.

Following this week’s Cabinet decision, Peace Now issued data it received from Israel’s military authorities showing that between 2009 and 2016, Israel approved 66 building permits for Palestinians — whereas construction began on 12,763 housing units for Israelis in the settlements.

US Ambassador David Friedman and presidential envoys Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have consistently signaled Netanyahu’s right-wing government their approval of a settlement-building boost. Even without an explicit green light from the US administration, its official silence screams approval.

Settlement leaders condemned the Cabinet decision. The head of the Hebron Mountain Council, Yochai Damari, claimed they were astounded at “being given a cold shoulder by the Cabinet”. However, the settlers know full well that Smotrich would not have voted in favor of the Palestinian permits plan without receiving a handsome quid-pro-quo ahead of the upcoming elections. Indeed, along with approving the Palestinian permits, the ministers also approved the construction of 6,000 settlement housing units. In other words, for every Palestinian home, the settlers will be allowed to build eight or more. This is a good deal for the settlers who only put on displays of coordinated anger for the sake of appearance. As Smotrich noted with candor in his post, “Original inhabitants of the area will be able to build and develop only in places that don't harm the settlement enterprise and security, and don't create territorial contiguity or a de facto Palestinian state." He said these are place "that don't serve the national interests of the Arabs, rather the national strategic interests of the State of Israel."

When he met with Netanyahu barely 24 hours after the Cabinet decision, was Kushner unaware that along with construction approval for Palestinians, the Cabinet had authorized thousands of housing units for settlers? And will 715 Palestinian homes in Area C, which is under total Israeli control, really help Kushner and Greenblatt assuage the feelings of President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA)? This is obviously a rhetorical question. The Palestinians realize that all the Cabinet did was throw a few crumbs their way in order to advance the grand plan that has taken shape under the current government: annexation of the territories.

In a July 31 interview with Haaretz correspondent Jack Khoury, Walid Assaf, head of the Palestinian campaign against the settlements and the separation barrier, said the PA understands exactly what the Cabinet was doing — moving Palestinians away from the controversial E1 West Bank area in preparation for annexation of Area C (which covers 60% of the West Bank). E1 is located within Area C, linking the settlement town of Maale Adumim to Jerusalem and interrupting north-south Palestinian territorial contiguity.

A senior Fatah official, Qadura Fares, told Al-Monitor that anyone with a brain understands what lies behind the decision. “Were Netanyahu and Smotrich interested in Palestinian’ welfare? The answer is ‘No.’ All they want is to advance Israel’s interests, to continue their massive takeover of the area and to throw a dry bone to residents of the area living there hundreds of years.” No one in the PA is enthusiastic about “such a bizarre decision,” he added. “It is surprising that the Americans are swallowing the hook with which Netanyahu is baiting them when it is so obvious.”

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