Israeli Defence Minister pushes major settlement expansion in Hebron

Summary: a proposal for a major expansion of the Jewish settler presence in Hebron seems likely to go ahead.

We are again grateful to Greg Shapland for the posting below. He is a writer on politics, security and resources in the MENA region. He was Head of Research Analysts in the FCO from 2010-13 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

On 1 December, Naftali Bennett, Israeli Defence Minister, announced a plan to build a new Jewish settlement in Hebron. The new development would, he said, double the number of Jews in the city. (Around 800 Jews currently live in Hebron.)  The Ministry of Defence said that Bennett had issued instructions “to notify the Hebron municipality of planning a new Jewish neighbourhood in the wholesale market complex.” The Municipality of Hebron was asked to consent to the demolition of the market building and its replacement with housing for settlers. The letter received by the Municipality stated that, if it failed to agree, it would lose its standing as a protected tenant with rights to the ground floor of the site.

Israeli police arrest a Palestinian man at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron on Monday credit: @Rasha3_1rasha

The following day, according to the Palestine News Network, Israel’s Channel 7 reported that Kamil Abu Rokon, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territory, had sent a letter to the Municipality “months ago” asking it to agree to works at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron designed to benefit Jewish visitors. The site is holy to Jews as the Cave of Machpelah or Tomb of the Patriarchs although the building itself is a 14th century Muslim construction. In 1994, following a massacre of Muslim worshippers by a settler named Baruch Goldstein, the mosque was divided, with Jews having exclusive access to part of it. In his letter, Abu Rokon informed the Municipality that, if it withheld its consent, the Israeli authorities would carry out the work anyway.

The Municipality has not agreed to either proposal and is highly unlikely to do so, as that would legitimise the settler presence in the city. A representative of the Municipality declared, “It will never happen.” And – principle apart – the protected-tenant status may not be worth very much anyway, as the Palestinian merchants were evacuated from the building following the 1994 massacre and the area declared a closed military zone.

Rather, the Mayor, Tayseer Abu Sneineh, has formed a legal team to challenge the plan to demolish the market in the Israeli courts. However, such challenges have rarely been successful in recent years.

There have been other manifestations of Palestinian refusal to accept the plan. On the same day that Bennett made his announcement, Saeb Erekat, the PLO Secretary General, in a tweet described the move as “the first tangible result of the US decision to legitimize colonization” and declared, “Concrete measures, including sanctions against settlements are an Int responsibility.”

On Sunday, 8 December, two attempted stabbings took place at the Ibrahimi Mosque. There is no certainty that the Palestinians involved were reacting to Bennett’s announcement. However, The Jerusalem Post  in an article reporting the incidents noted “Tensions in the region have risen dramatically since Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced the funding of a new Jewish neighborhood in Hebron.”

Fatah, the party of PA President Mahmud Abbas, called a general strike on Monday 9 December which was, according to KUNA (Kuwait News Agency), widely observed.  WAFA, PA’s news agency, reports that “dozens” of Palestinians demonstrators suffered “suffocation injuries” from the tear-gas fired at them by Israeli soldiers during clashes on Monday. It is hard to know how serious these clashes were and the withdrawal of the international observers (the Temporary International Presence in Hebron or TIPH) last February at Israeli request makes it much more difficult to get an independent assessment. (We looked at the withdrawal of the TIPH in our post of 8 February, “Hebron: the temporary international presence comes to a sudden end.”)

Despite Erekat’s tweet, mentioned above, the international response to the proposal for a new settlement in Hebron has been decidedly muted. The Secretary General of the OIC (the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) “condemned strongly the decision of the Israeli occupation authorities to build a new colonial settlement in the heart of the city of Hebron in the south of the West Bank.” He “called on the international community, particularly the UN Security Council, to take decisive measures to stop Israeli occupation policies” but significantly did not explicitly call for members of the OIC to take such measures or even to meet to discuss the possibility of taking them. The Arab League does not appear to have reacted to Bennett’s proposal. Saudi Arabia has called for the League (and the GCC) to meet urgently, but to discuss “escalating tensions in the Gulf”, not developments in Hebron. A spokesman for the EU’S Representative Office in Jerusalem told Voice of Palestine that the EU “absolutely rejected” Israel’s settlement policy in Hebron and elsewhere in the West Bank.

None of these reactions, local or international, will deflect Bennett from going ahead with his proposal for the redevelopment of Hebron market. Implementation of the plan could only be halted if the next Knesset elections (now apparently set for early March next year) and the subsequent coalition negotiations produce an Israeli government that is markedly less pro-settler than the present one. By that time, of course, the demolition of the existing building may already have taken place and construction of new settler accommodation may have started.

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