The United States responded on Monday to news that Israel was planning to expand its state land and launch a new building project in the West Bank.
The IDF on Sunday conferred the status of state land on 4,000 dunams in the Gush Etzion region, thus ending the civil administration’s investigation into the possibility that parcels were private Palestinian property.
The new designation for an area known as Gevaot opens the door for settlers to advance plans to build a fifth city in the West Bank on those dunams.
"We have long made clear our opposition to continued settlement activity," a State Department official said. "This announcement, like every other settlement announcement Israel makes, planning step they approve and construction tender they issue, is counterproductive to Israel's stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians."
"We urge the government of Israel to reverse this decision," the US official said in Washington.
The land had previously been listed as survey land, a designation that prevented settlers and the army from moving building plans through the planning system. The Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said that it had acted under guidelines from the upper political echelon issued after the end of the IDF’s mission to return the bodies of three teenagers which Hamas terrorists kidnapped and killed in June.
The 4,000 dunams are located just outside the Alon Shvut settlement in an area of Gush Etzion, that Israel believes will be included within its final borders in any final status solution.
The Palestinian Authority immediately condemned what it called the seizure of its land in the West Bank and claimed that it belonged to the districts of the two Palestinian cities located nearest to the parcel – Bethlehem and Hebron.
Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said that this status change must be reversed.
“This decision will lead to more instability. This will only inflame the situation after the war in Gaza,” Abu Rudaineh said.
The news of the future plan broke less than one week since a ceasefire was declared between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip.
Abbas has struggled throughout the period of hostilities to prove that a diplomatic path to statehood is more effective than a military one.
Peace Now executive director Yariv Oppenheimer charged that Israel had “stabbed Abu Mazen in the back. The same government that knows how to reach an agreement with Hamas has once again turned its back on moderate Palestinians.”
Hagit Ofran of Peace Now added that four or five Palestinian villages have farm land in that area. She charged that the declaration prevented the villages from developing or using their land.
A local Palestinian mayor said Palestinians owned the tracts and harvested olive trees on them.
“We were surprised in the early hours this morning when the Israeli civil administration and the Israeli military gave warnings and put signs in many areas in Wadi Fukin, on the northern, southern and western paths of the village, declaring the appropriation of thousands of dunams for the benefit of the expansion of three settlements that surround the village,” said Ahmad Sukar, head of Wadi Fukin village council.
The 1,000 hectares are located just outside the Alon Shvut settlement in an area of Gush Etzion that Israel believes will be included within its final borders in any final-status solution.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has previously supported the building of Gva’ot, objected to the civil administration’s announcement.
Livni, who headed Israel’s negotiating team during the US-brokered nine-month peace process with the PA that ended in April, warned that the move would significantly harm Israel’s public diplomacy efforts.
“Now, when we need to mobilize the world to prevent processes against Israel and work together with moderate forces, anything that could deflect attention on to us and cause criticism of us harms those things we are trying to achieve,” she said.
The Prime Minister’s Office had no response. But one government official dismissed Peace Now and Livni’s criticism, noting that people were “commenting on automatic pilot.” The official rejected the idea that such a move stabbed Abbas in the back or poisoned the atmosphere with the PA.
“We remain serious about negotiating two states for two peoples,” the official said.
“Nothing we have done today inhibits the ability to come to an agreement on a two-state solution.”
PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi condemned the Israeli decision, saying it would be added to “Israeli crimes in Gaza.”
Ashrawi accused Israel of practicing a “double aggression on the land of the occupied State of Palestine.”
She claimed that during Operation Protective Edge, Israel “escalated its other assault on the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem and intensified its efforts to practically remove the 1967 borders of the Palestinian state in order to establish the Great Israel.”
Gush Etzion Regional Council head Davidi Perl welcomed the announcement that the near-1,000 acres, which help create territorial contiguity between his communities and the pre-1967 lines, had been declared state land.
“This paves the way for the establishment of a new city in Gush Etzion,” Perl said.
The other four Israeli cities in the West Bank are Modi’in Illit, Betar Illit, Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel.
The area of Gva’ot was first developed as an IDF Nahal community in 1984, following a 1982 cabinet decision. The military closed it in 1996. For the next decade, the Shvut Yisrael Yeshiva made use of the site with small modular homes.
Since 1998 the Gush Etzion Regional Council has consistently pushed to build a city in that area. Initial plans for 6,000 homes in Gva’ot were abandoned in 2000 because the diplomatic climate was not supportive.
The plans were picked up again in 2008 and moved forward in 2009 after the Annapolis peace process fell apart.
In 2012, the Defense Ministry gave initial authorization to build 523 homes there but then froze the project.
In June of this year, the Gush Etzion Regional Council reissued its call for work to move forward on Gva’ot as a response to the deaths of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah.
The three teens were kidnapped at a bus stop near the Gva’ot site.
“Those who killed the three teens wanted to instill fear, disrupt our lives, undermine our right to all of this land and to Gush Etzion in particular,” Perl said.
“Our response is to strengthen the settlement enterprise, strengthen our sovereignty over Gush Etzion and Judea and Samaria and to build within and without the settlement blocs,” Perl said.
“I trust that the government will continue to advance the construction of a new city that will provide thousands of new homes. In this way it will prove to our enemies who wanted to uproot us that they have only deepened our hold on the land,” he said.Reuters contributed to this report.