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Isreal breaks ground on new West Bank settlement

Chase Winter with AFP, AP, Reuters
June 20, 2017

Israel has started construction of its first new settlement in the West Bank in nearly two decades. Palestinians accused Israel of undermining US efforts to restart peace talks.

Westjordanland - neue Siedlung in Amona
Image: Reuters/R. Zvulun

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that ground had been broken on the first new Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank in nearly two decades, just as US President Donald Trump's Middle East peace envoys are in Israel this week.

"As I promised, today the work on the ground began to establish the new settlement for the settlers of Amona. After dozens of years, I'm honored to be the prime minister who builds a new settlement in Judea and Samaria," Netanhayu said on Twitter, referring to the biblical names of the West Bank.

Netanyahu had vowed to build a new settlement toreplace Amona, which was destroyed in February after Israel's top court ruled it was illegally built on private Palestinian land. Tuesday's ground-clearing work for the settlement to be called Amichai was in preparation for the installation of mobile homes to house about 300 settlers evicted from Amona.

Infografik Siedlungen im Westjordanland ENGLISCH

Netanyahu has billed the settlement as the first new one established from scratch in the West Bank in nearly two decades. During that period, however, the population of existing settlements and unauthorized so-called "wildcat outposts" has almost trebled.

Emboldened by Trump's victory, Israel's right-wing government has approved thousands of new homes on existing settlements.

Undermining a future Palestinian state

Palestinians and most of the international community consider settlements built in territory captured by Israel after the 1967 war as illegal under international law. Settlements are also considered an obstacle to peace because they are built on land Palestinians claim for a future state.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement the new settlement "constitutes a serious escalation and is an attempt to thwart the efforts of the US administration and US President Donald Trump" to restart peace talks that collapsed in 2014. 

Those talks in large part collapsed after Israel ignored US pressure and announced the building of thousands of new homes in existing settlement blocs.

Can the US remain impartial? 

Breaking ground at a new settlement site comes as Trump's envoy on Israel-Palestine peace, Jason Greenblatt, and his son-in-law and chief Middle East peace advisor, Jared Kushner, are to hold discussions with Palestinian and Israeli leaders this week.

The timing of the announcement signals Netanyahu intends to take a tough stand on settlements in order to gain support from the settler movement and far-right members of his coalition government after a meeting at the White House earlier this year in which Trump told Israel to "hold back on settlements for a little bit" in order to allow room to explore peace talks.

In Israel last month, Trump was silent on settlements, at least publicly. On the campaign trail, he had vowed to be the most pro-Israel US president ever and suggested settlements were not an obstacle to peace.

Read: When Israelis started to talk about the occupation

While the Palestinians have cautiously supported a renewed US-brokered peace effort, Trump's staunchly pro-Israel position and the views of his advisers have raised questions whether they can be impartial actors.

Shaath: Israel killed Oslo peace deal

Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew who was Trump's real-estate adviser, is soft on settlements and was even an armed guard at a West Bank yeshiva he studied at in the 1980s.

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last year, he said he had not had any contacts with Palestinians since his time at the yeshiva, when he came into contact with laborers. He has also said settlements are not a core problem of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. 

Kushner's family foundation, the Charles and Seryl Kushner Foundation, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to organizations and institutions in West Bank settlements.  The Kushner family has also long been close to Netanyahu, with the prime minister once sleeping on Kushner's childhood bed.   

Patchwork of settlements

There are about 550,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem living amid some three million Palestinians, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. About 15 percent of settlers are American Jews.

The settlements include those that Israel considers legal as well as at least 100 wildcat outposts. Since the 1993 peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, the number of settlement homes has increased more than threefold, threatening the viability of a two-state solution. 

Settlements have turned the land of a future Palestinian state into a patchwork marked by Jewish-only roads, security barriers and military checkpoints.

Israel argues most settlements would be included within Israel as part of any future peace deal in exchange for giving Palestinians land of equal quality and quantity. Israel also cites biblical, historical and security interests to defend settlements.