New Israeli West Bank Settlement Plans Move Forward Despite Biden Admin Pushback

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
February 28, 2024Middle East
New Israeli West Bank Settlement Plans Move Forward Despite Biden Admin Pushback
Houses in the Jewish settlement of Halamish are pictured, near the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh in the central part of the occupied West Bank on June 6, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is moving ahead with plans to expand Israeli settlement communities in the West Bank despite concerns raised by the Biden administration that these efforts would further complicate the administration’s push for a two-state solution.

On Tuesday, Mr. Smotrich announced the approval of municipal boundaries for a new community called Mishmar Yehuda, to be located in the Israeli West Bank settlement cluster of Gush Etzion, located south of Jerusalem. The Israeli finance minister, who is himself a West Bank settler, said work would continue authorizing further settlements in the contested territory.

“We will continue the momentum of settlement throughout the country,” he said in a statement.

Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox, the leader of the Isreal Defense Force (IDF) Central Command approved Mishmar Yehuda’s municipal boundaries earlier this week, the Times of Israel reported. The Higher Planning Committee of the Civil Administration in the West Bank still has to take up the plans for the Mishmar Yehuda community before construction can begin, but the IDF’s decision to grant the municipal boundaries marks the latest move by Israelis to expand their presence in the West Bank.

The decision came just days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby warned against Israel expanding its West Bank settlements. Both Biden administration officials said the new settlement plans are “inconsistent with international law,” reverting to a longstanding U.S. position that had been overturned by the Trump administration.

In 2019, former President Donald Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo had seen the United States take a neutral stance on Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza.

Opponents See Settlements as Obstacle to Peace

The West Bank is a territory bordered to the north, west, and south by Israel and to the east by Jordan. The territory has been under varying degrees of Israeli military and civil administration after Israeli forces seized control of the land during the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel has not formally annexed the West Bank but maintains administrative control of sections of the territory.

The 15-member United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution in 1967 calling for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the West Bank.

The 1995 Oslo II Accords, signed by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, set a framework for eventually transferring control of the West Bank to the Palestinians. The accord specifically divided West Bank territory into three categories of control: Area A territories controlled exclusively by the Palestinian Authority, Area B territories jointly administered by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, and Area C territories controlled exclusively by the Israeli government. The Oslo II Accords stipulated that the Palestinian Authority would eventually gain full authority over each of these three types of territory.

To date, the framework for transferring West Bank territory to the Palestinians remains unfulfilled. Area C territory currently comprises about 60 percent of the total West Bank land, and these areas remain under full Israeli control.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been an ongoing point of contention in the long-running Israeli–Palestinian conflict, with opponents arguing that the settlements increasingly carve into territory claimed by the Palestinian people and undermine any settlement under a two-state proposal.

Tensions in the West Bank between Palestinians and Israeli settlers have fueled violence between both factions.

In December, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said West Bank had seen heightened levels of violence between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank throughout 2023. Mr. Miller said those already-heightened tensions only grew further when members of the Hamas terrorist group in the Gaza Strip attacked southern Israel, killing 1,200 Israelis and kidnapping about 240.

“There was a surge in violence leading up to Oct. 7. There has been a significant increase from that already heightened level of violence since October 7,” Mr. Miller said.

Biden Admin Has Already Sanctioned Israeli Settlers

The Biden administration announced visa restrictions in December, barring entry into the United States by Israeli settlers believed to be linked to violence in the West Bank.

This month, the Biden administration also announced targeted sanctions against four Israeli nationals accused of participating in various violent clashes in the West Bank, including at least one incident that resulted in a Palestinian civilian’s death. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cast U.S. sanctions against West Bank settlers as “unnecessary.”

“The overwhelming majority of residents in Judea and Samaria are law-abiding citizens, many of whom are currently fighting—as conscripts and reservists—to defend Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said in response to the targeted sanctions against West Bank settlers.

“Judea and Samaria” is a term commonly used in Israeli society to refer to the area encompassing the West Bank. The Hebrew Bible describes the tribes of the Israelites inhabiting and governing over the areas of Judea and Samaria at various points in antiquity.

“Israel acts against all Israelis who break the law, everywhere,” the statement from Mr. Netanyahu’s office continues. “Therefore, exceptional measures are unnecessary.”

It remains to be seen how new West Bank settlements will impact President Biden’s relationship with Mr. Netanyahu, amid the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict.

Mr. Netanyahu’s current governing coalition includes Mr. Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party.

Reuters contributed to this article.

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