Settlement construction should not be used only as terror response - editorial

The government’s approach until now has been to avoid collective punishment against Palestinian civilians. There are now calls on the government to change its tactics.

 A Palestinian man walks down the stairs of a building as the Israeli settlement of Dolev is seen, near Ramallah in the West Bank January 26, 2020. Picture taken January 26, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)
A Palestinian man walks down the stairs of a building as the Israeli settlement of Dolev is seen, near Ramallah in the West Bank January 26, 2020. Picture taken January 26, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)

On Friday, Israel announced plans to build some 4,000 new housing units in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The announcement was hard to disconnect from recent events. On Thursday night, three Israelis – 40-year-old Yonatan Habakuk, a father of five, 40-year-old Boaz Gol, another father of five and 35-year-old Oren Ben Yiftach, a father of six – were murdered by ax-wielding Palestinian terrorists in the ultra-Orthodox city of Elad.

It was just the latest in a string of terrorist attacks that have struck across the country in the last two months, claiming the lives of 18 Israelis.

So far, the government has focused all of its operations in the West Bank, cracking down on terrorist infrastructure and rounding up potential attackers. But it has yet to turn its attention to the Gaza Strip, from where top Hamas terrorists appear to be inspiring and even ordering the attacks – but that might need to change since nothing else is working.

The government’s approach until now has been to avoid collective punishment against Palestinian civilians. There are now calls on the government to change its tactics.

 ZAKA and MDA medics at the scene of the terror attack in Elad on Thursday, May 5, 2022.  (credit: ISRAEL POLICE) ZAKA and MDA medics at the scene of the terror attack in Elad on Thursday, May 5, 2022. (credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

Part of the response now also seems to be settlement construction. It is a known tactic from the Netanyahu years and one that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett often called for in the wake of terrorist attacks against Israelis or anti-Israel moves by the Palestinians.

In 2014, for example, Bennett called on then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to immediately annex settlement blocs in the West Bank in response to a Palestinian request to join 15 international conventions.

Settler leaders and other right-wing MKs have made similar calls in the past. The problem with this is that it turns Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria into a punishment as opposed to a policy.

If building homes is the right thing for Israel to do, then it should do so as a policy and not as a response or punitive measure to something that was done by the Palestinians. Building homes for Israelis should not be a response to a terrorist attack – and if it is, then it probably should not be done.

Using settlement construction in this way makes clear what the government refuses to admit: it prefers not to build in settlements and will only do so when it needs to respond aggressively to something done to it, like a terrorist attack in Elad which claimed the lives of three innocent men.

This is wrong and is not the right way to make decisions. It is wrong since it undermines the validity of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria by basically admitting that settlement construction is a punishment.

The latest announcement is also undoubtedly connected to Bennett’s political troubles and is part of an attempt to keep the right-wing flank of his coalition happy and within the confines of the government. It’s unlikely that Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz would have approved the new homes without the recent defection of MK Idit Silman from the coalition to the opposition and a fear that more Yamina members of Knesset are considering doing the same.

The announcement also came ahead of the planned visit next month of US President Joe Biden, who is expected to spend about two days in Israel. Israel reportedly updated the Americans of the planned settlement construction, but that did not stop the administration from denouncing the move. As of now, it does not seem that the Americans – who want this government to survive – will cancel Biden’s visit as a result.

Bennett would do well to remember the Ramat Shlomo affair when Biden visited Israel in 2010 and Israel announced new construction in east Jerusalem. That sparked a mini-crisis with the then-vice president.

The question of what Israel should do over the Green Line and whether it should build is not one that should be answered due to terrorist attacks or fears of political retribution. That cheapens the legitimacy of the homes and their future sustainability.

Israel needs to decide what it wants and how it envisions its future borders. Ad hoc construction for political reasons is not the right way.