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Israel’s largest land seizure since Oslo Accords deals fresh blow to Palestinian statehood

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Israel declared 800 hectares of land in the West Bank as property of the state on Friday, a move that will facilitate use of the ground for settlement construction. The area covers large swaths of the Jordan Valley, a vital region for a future Palestinian state, and is the largest piece of land to be seized by Israel since the early 1990s.

When far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich announced Israel would seize 800 hectares of land in the West Bank last Friday, it did not come as a surprise to Hamza Zbiedat. 

Though he is based in Ramallah, his family live in a small village close to the border between the West Bank and Jordan called Zubaydat, just north of the vast area now declared Israeli state land.

“Israel has fully controlled the Jordan Valley for the last 15 years at least,” says Zbiedat, who works as an advocacy officer for the Ma’an Development Center, a Palestinian civil society organisation. “The only thing left for Israel to do was to announce it.”

The Jordan Valley is a rich strip of land that runs along the West Bank, east of the central highlands. Sparsely populated, it has many open and undeveloped areas – making it a precious reserve for the future development of the West Bank.

According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, almost 90 percent of the Jordan Valley region has been designated Area C, meaning it remained under full Israeli control after the 1995 Oslo II Accord.

“While there are those in Israel and the world who seek to undermine our right over the Judea and Samaria area and the country in general,” Smotrich declared, referring to the West Bank region by its biblical name, “we promote settlement through hard work and in a strategic manner all over the country”.

The area covers 8,000 dunams (800 hectares) between three Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank – Masu’a, Ma’ale Efrayim and Yafit. 

A few weeks earlier, on February 29, Israel appropriated an additional 300 hectares near the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. 

Together, these areas represent the largest zone to be designated Israeli state land since the first Oslo Accords in 1993, according to Peace Now, an Israeli organisation documenting settlement activities.

A losing battle

Now that Israel has declared swaths of the Jordan Valley as its own, Palestinians can longer use the land.

“We guess it will help to expand Israeli settlements,” says Yonatan Mizrachi, co-director of the settlement-monitoring branch at Peace Now.

Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, including East Jerusalem, are illegal under international law.

Read moreFrom 1947 to 2023: Retracing the complex, tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In 2016, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2334 and demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory”, underlining that it would not “recognise any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines … other than those agreed by the two sides through negotiations”.

But the Israeli administration has repeatedly used orders like declarations of state land to take over Palestinian territories.

In recent years, the Israeli Housing Ministry even created subsidised home ownership programmes to combat the housing crisis and created a lottery system that lured Israelis to move into West Bank settlements.

The declaration of parcels as state land means the area can no longer be considered the private property of Palestinians by the Israeli state. The process facilitates settlers’ leasing or buying plots of designated land. 

Rights groups say it is near impossible for Palestinians to appeal these declarations. 

“There is a kind of bureaucracy that if you own the land, you can object in the next 45 days [following a declaration]. But it’s basically official,” says Mizrachi. “I would be surprised if Palestinians … go to court [to appeal].”

Up until 1967, the Jordan Valley was under Jordanian administration. After the war, Israel issued a military order that put an end to land registrations across the West Bank – meaning Palestinian families often lack the paperwork to prove they hold private ownership over their land. What’s more, Israeli authorities do not accept tax receipts, the only alternative recourse to prove property ownership.

Declarations of state land in occupied territories were halted in 1992 under former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. But two years after Netanyahu was first elected prime minister in 1996, he resumed the practice. Since then, around 40,000 dunams (about 4,000 hectares) have been designated state land by Israel, according to Peace Now.

“It might take years before [the land] is used,” says Mizrachi. “Then suddenly we might see a new outpost, a new settlement, new developments.”

The total area under direct control of Israeli settlements constitutes more than 40 percent of the entire West Bank, according to B’Tselem, which is also known as the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

In 2023, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found that a total of 700,000 Israeli settlers were living illegally in the occupied West Bank.

Limiting chances for a two-state solution

Israel’s annexation of this vast piece of land could make it even more difficult for Palestinians in the West Bank to move from the north to the south of the territory.

The parcels claimed in the end of February near Ma’ale Adumim create a continuous strip of state land between Ma’ale and another settlement called Kedar, marking a divide between the southern West Bank and the Jordan Valley in the north.

Current restrictions on movement such as Israeli military checkpoints already make it difficult for Palestinians to travel within the West Bank.

“I live in Ramallah. If I want to go see my parents in the Jordan Valley for Ramadan, just to eat Iftar (the fast-breaking evening meal during Islam’s holy month) with them, it would take me three or four hours to get there,” says Zbiedat, who works as an advocacy officer for the Ma’an Development Center, a Palestinian civil society organisation. “I don’t have time to go there after work and drive another four hours back at night.”

Part of the area seized by Israel is located close to East Jerusalem, and is what Palestinians hope will become the centre of a future independent state. Since the Oslo Accords were signed in the early 90s, little progress has been made on achieving Palestinian statehood. Experts, as well as the UN Security Council, say the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land is a major obstacle to a two-state solution.

Cases of settlements being built on land declared as state property by Israel have also grown exponentially in recent months. 

UN human rights chief Volker Turk published a report last month that found 24,300 housing units had been built within existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank between November 2022 and October 2023, the highest on record since the UN began monitoring the situation in 2017.

A natural greenhouse

“The Jordan Valley is very important for Palestinians in the West Bank. It is supposed to be one of the biggest areas to be part of the state of Palestine, with huge fertile land and a lot of resources,” says Zbiedat. “Two of the biggest aquifer basins of drinkable water in the West Bank are located in the Jordan Valley.”

Zbiedat says experts consider the Jordan Valley a “natural greenhouse”.

“For the last centuries, most of this land was an open herding area for Palestinian Bedouins or villagers with sheep, camels, cows, goats and so on. It was also cultivated by other Palestinians to grow lemons, oranges and other kinds of fruit,” says Zbiedat.

A few years ago, he travelled to the area now designated Israeli state land to take photos and saw that Israelis had begun paving roads and planting date trees.

“Dates have become the most famous crop in the Jordan Valley,” Zbiedat explains. “Agricultural expansion is important in this area … Now that the date trees are six or seven years old, settlers are making hundreds of thousands of shekels from this land.”

“And the workers are mostly Palestinians. But the owners are the settlers,” he says.

Though much of the region is uninhabited, more land confiscations would mean “less Bedouins, less animals, less Palestinian farms and a shrinking independent Palestinian economy,” Zbiedat sighs. “It means less Palestinians in the Jordan Valley.”

The same report published by UNHCHR chief Turk last month underlined the dramatic increase in settler and state violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, notably since the war in Gaza began on October 7. Since the conflict began, “a total of 1,222 Palestinians from 19 herding communities have been displaced as a direct result of settler violence”, it reported.

The West Bank has also seen frequent Palestinian attacks on Israelis since the war broke out.

‘All for the benefit of settlers’

“[Settlers] believe they need to expand and protect what they are calling ‘a state land’ or ‘our patriarch’s land’ from Palestinians. They believe that any new settlement brings more security to the region. That is the main philosophy,” says Mizrachi. “As long as Smotrich controls the civil administration, he will continue this policy.”

Smotrich, who leads the far-right Religious Zionism party, is a settler himself as well as the head of the Israeli Civil Administration.

Last year, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu offered Smotrich a sweeping monopoly on construction planning and approvals in the West Bank by granting him the power to handle land-use issues. Netanyahu decided it was no longer necessary for himself and Israel’s defence minister to provide their formal sign-off on West Bank settlement constructions at every phase.

As a result, Smotrich was designated a strong authority figure of the occupied West Bank – a move the UN warned could facilitate the annexation of the territory.

For Zbiedat, the most recent land seizure is “a message to the US to say, ‘OK, you don’t want us to invade Rafah [in the southern Gaza Strip]? Then don’t say anything about what we do in the West Bank’.”

Smotrich made the announcement on the day US Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Tel Aviv for talks with Netanyahu about the war in Gaza.

The US State Department in March had also ordered financial sanctions against four Israeli settlers in the West Bank, marking a rare rebuke of Israel.

Blinken had also expressed his disappointment with Israel’s decision to approve 3,400 new homes in West Bank settlements on March 6. 

“It is a way to put pressure on the US government not to intervene when it comes to settlers,” Zbiedat says.

“But it is also an internal message to Israeli voters to say, ‘Look, we are expanding our settlements in the Jordan Valley’ … which they say will remain forever a part of Israel. They do not want to give Palestinians any kind of control to any kind of border [with Jordan],” he explains.

Palestinian authorities have condemned Smotrich’s announcement. The Palestinian ministry of foreign affairs called the latest move “a continuation of the extermination and displacement of our people from their homeland”.

Read more‘Freedom is paid for in blood’: In the occupied West Bank, families long to bury their dead

“In any case, it is important for people to know we are also living a siege here,” says Zbiedat, referring to the ongoing war in Gaza. “And it’s all for the benefit of settlers.”

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