Conflict Alerts # 217, 21 January 2021
In the news
On 17 January 2021, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz approved the construction of approximately 800 new settlement housing units in the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had previously promised the same. To offset a potential blowback, Gantz also approved some preliminary steps for Palestinian construction projects. Settler leaders, such as Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, hailed the move as a "historic achievement" and called for the recognition of homes in the illegal outposts.
On the same day, the Palestinian Authority called the move "a pre-emptive attempt" to undermine the Biden administration's efforts to "relaunch the stalled peace process". Meanwhile, Israeli anti-settlement campaign/monitoring group Peace Now, Jordan, Egypt and UK condemned the hurried move. European Union hinted it may jeopardize the 'Abraham Accords'.
Issues at large
First, Netanyahu's expansionist policies. On 28 May 2020, Netanyahu publicized his commitment to annex the occupied West Bank. On 14 October, Israel approved 2,166 new settler homes across West Bank. It signals Israel's dismissal of Palestinian statehood. Settlements are considered illegal under international law and are considered a hurdle for a two-state solution. Palestinians identify the swelling settler population (over 500,000 people) as an obstacle for achieving independence.
Second, the last-minute push. The Israel-friendly Trump administration will be leaving the office on 20 January. With a Congress that has been deeply divided between Democrats and Republicans, Biden is expected to restore the US stance against settlement construction. The recent approvals seem to be Netanyahu's way of utilizing the pro-settlement Trump administration's final days.
Third, the normalizations. After decades of conflict, Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Morocco normalized relations with Israel by concluding the US-sponsored Abraham accords in the latter end of 2020. Sudan also signed an agreement with Israel. The settlement approval makes it difficult for the Arab signatories to justify their normalization decisions.
First, annexation policies, of which settlement construction is a part of, will redraw the eastern frontiers of Israel and push the asymmetric conflict into novel territory. As per reports, the earmarked areas would encompass 30 per cent of the West Bank. Although over 4.5 per cent of Palestinians living in West Bank, would come under the annexed territory, Israeli sovereignty will not apply to Palestinians. The latter would only be subject to Palestinian laws and Israeli military orders.
Second, for decades, US administrations and the global community opposed settlement construction. But the Trump administration derailed. Instead of criticizing Israeli settlement announcements, Washington in 2018 announced that it no longer recognized the illegality of Israeli settlements under international law. Thus, during Trump's tenure, Israel approved over 27,000 settler homes' construction. Besides, on 14 January, the Palestinian Authority's head Mahmoud Abbas announced Palestine's first national vote since 2006. If Biden restores Washington's traditional stand, the elections may worsen the impending friction between Biden and Netanyahu.
Third, the settlement construction may make normalizing ties with Israel harder for other interested Arab states. Particularly in the absence of the Trump administration that on 16 January termed UAE and Bahrain as "major security partners"; an incentive for Israeli normalization. However, as Palestinian statehood has lost its charm in the Arab world, the new approvals may prove inconsequential for further Arab-Israeli normalizations.