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Netanyahu’s dangerous new settlement expansion could evict longtime Bedouin residents

Days before the Israeli general elections, Netanyahu made a promise for new settlements that would evict Bedouin Arabs.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets his supporters during a Likud party upcoming election campaign rally in Jerusalem. 
Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to allow 3,500 new Israeli settlements in a contested region of the West Bank known as the “E-1 zone,” short for East-1.

E-1 is an “underpopulated” strip of land located between East Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967, and the Ma’ale Adumim bloc, an Israeli settlement located in the West Bank. The E-1 zone is mostly inhabited by Bedouin Arab residents, Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and history at New York University, told me.

Plans to build Jewish settlements in the E-1 zone have been talked about for years now. But objections from the United States and Israel’s European allies have so far been able to pressure Israel to stop these plans from going forward.

The concerns, experts say, is that such settlements would threaten a potential future peace deal with the Palestinians. And, because they would essentially cut off the northern and southern parts of the West Bank, the settlements could make the creation of a future contiguous Palestinian state even more difficult, if not impossible.

“That’s why George W Bush and other US administrations, as well as the Europeans, repeatedly sought guarantees from the Israeli government that they would not build in E1,” Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told me.

But the Trump administration has taken a far more indulgent approach to Israel than previous US administrations have — and it seems unlikely to make any meaningful effort to try to thwart Netanyahu’s plans this time around. “Now, with Trump’s apparent blessing, Netanyahu is talking about moving ahead,” Lockman said.

“It may be an election ploy [by Netanyahu] to make his right-wing voters and allies happy,” Lockman said. Israel goes to the polls next week, and Netanyahu — who is facing trial for charges of bribery and fraud — is trying to rally voters to his side. Even so, Lockman added, the prime minister would “certainly like” to move forward with the E-1 settlement plans.

If it happens, though, it won’t just be the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace that will be put in jeopardy. The lives and livelihoods of the Bedouins who mostly populate the E-1 area could also be put at serious risk.

The settlements would further harm Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts

Building settlements in the E-1 zone would “in effect cut the West Bank in half and make any kind of future Palestinian state in the West Bank even less attainable,” Lockman told me.

Cutting the West Bank in half is a significant step toward diminishing any potential future for a recognized Palestinian state. This is because it would ultimately “cement the territorial connection between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim,” Lockman said.

That, in fact, is the entire point of the E-1 plan from the point of view of the Israeli government and other supporters of the settlement plan. “The linking of Jerusalem to Maale Adumim is an overriding Israeli interest,” wrote Nadav Shragai in a 2013 study published by the right-wing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs research institute.

Cementing this connection, though, would in turn block Palestinian residents from accessing occupied East Jerusalem.

That is partly why Elgindy told me that going forward with this plan would compromise the future of Palestine.

“E-1 was always considered the ‘doomsday’ settlement, the one that would make a future Palestinian state impossible,” he said. He added that, under international law, building these settlements “would be a war crime.”

Essentially, with settlements in E-1, any future “two-state” plan would be unworkable.

“The two-state concept is pretty dead anyway, killed by the massive Israeli settlement project underway since 1967 and the de facto annexation of chunks of the West Bank. But this would be one more big nail in the coffin of that vision,” Lockman said.

Building settlements would also jeopardize the security of the area’s Bedouin residents

The E-1 zone is often described as deserted, or a “ghost town,” but that’s not exactly true. The area is home to 18 Bedouin tribes.

A picture taken from the E1 corridor, a sensitive area of the occupied West Bank, shows Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the background on February 25, 2020.
Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

“As elsewhere in the West Bank, Jewish settlements would be built on land taken in one way or another from Palestinians; in this case, the Bedouin would be kicked off lands they’ve lived on for generations,” Lockman said.

This is not the first time Bedouins have been evicted by Israel to build settlements.

To expand Ma’ale Adumim in 1997, Israel kicked out more than 100 bedouin families, forcing them to move to areas less well suited to their traditionally pastoral, nomadic way of life. “Their new plots of land had little grazing space; most were forced to sell their flocks, and now work for Israeli companies as labourers,” the Economist wrote in 2016.

“We’re like fish in the water,” Abu Imad, a leader of the Abu Nawwar tribe, told the Economist. “Our lives are in the desert, and we will die if we’re moved.”

Right-wing supporters of the E-1 settlement plan, on the other hand, argue that it is the Bedouins who are “encroaching” on the area. As Shragai argued in the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs study:

Palestinian and Bedouin settlement is encroaching on this space all the time, the great majority of it illegal: that is, this Palestinian construction is executed without any building permit. According to the Oslo II Interim Agreement, the territory between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim has been designated as Area C, meaning that the powers of zoning and planning were retained here by Israel. Illegal Palestinian construction enables the takeover of vitally important land, some of it within the E1 area.

However, the vast majority of experts in the international community reject this alternative interpretation of the law and the current situation in the E-1 zone.

Indeed, the UN secretary-general in 2015 “voiced concerns at the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situations facing Palestinian Bedouin and herder populations affected by home demolitions and Israeli plans for ‘relocation’ of entire communities,” and argued that “the transfer of Palestinian Bedouin communities would contravene the obligations of Israel under international human rights law, particularly regarding the rights to freedom of residence and to adequate housing.”

Even worse, many of the Bedouin families who would be forced to relocate if the E-1 settlement plan goes forward have been forced to move and had their homes demolished several times already.

“The demolition has been devastating and our situation is miserable,” Umm Muhammed, a Bedouin woman whose home was demolished in January 2017, told the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “We’re homeless. It’s been psychologically tiring for all of us. I personally feel powerless and unwell. Where shall we go? And how shall we live here?”