U.S. Condemns Defense Minister Ya'alon's Decision to Expand Settlement Bloc

Moshe Ya'alon approved the establishment of a new settlement inside a church compound near Gush Etzion, acquired by U.S. businessman Irving Moskowitz.

The United States said it was "deeply concerned" Friday after Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon approved the establishment of a new settlement inside a church compound in the West Bank, State Department Spokesman John Kirby said during a press briefing on Friday.

Ya'alon's decision, Kirby said, shows a lack of commitment to the two-state solution on Israel's part.

The state department spokesman offered an unusually detailed account of the American concerns, and said that the decision joins the fact that 70 percent of Area C in the West Bank, where Israel has full security and civilian control, have already been designated as state lands and a part of the municipal area of local and regional councils. Ya'alon's decision "only expands this significant majority of the West Bank that has already been claimed for exclusive Israeli use," he stressed.

The defense minister's latest decision, together with the legitimizing of illegal settlement outposts and construction of infrastructure in remote settlements are undermining the possibility of implementing a two-state solution, Kirby said.

"Continued settlement activity and expansion raises honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions and will only make achieving a two-state solution much more difficult," Kirby said. "We continue to look to both sides to demonstrate with actions and policies a genuine commitment to a two state solution. Actions such as Wednesday’s decision do just the opposite."

Haaretz reported on Wednesday that in recent weeks Ya'alon has approved the addition of a West Bank church compound to the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. The property was purchased by an American non-profit controlled by U.S. businessman Irving Moskowitz and his wife, Haaretz reported in May. The compound is ready to be populated. The defense minister's decision effectively expands Gush Etzion.

The property consists of eight buildings on a 40-dunam (10-acre) lot. It is located in a strategic location on Route 60 between Jerusalem and Hebron, opposite the Al-Aroub refugee camp. Originally built by an American missionary in the 1940s, it first served as a tuberculosis hospital and later as a hostel for pilgrims.

A few years ago the Presbyterian group that owned it fell into financial difficulties and decided to sell it. Gro Faye-Hansen Wenske, a Norwegian Christian supporter of the settlements, then set up a company in Sweden that portrayed itself as a church group. The company, Scandinavian Seamen Holy Land Enterprises, offered to buy the property from its American owners, saying it planned to restore the church and resume its operations. The sale was completed in 2010 and duly registered with Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank. In 2012, the Swedish company announced that it was going out of business and sold the property to an American organization controlled by Moskowitz.

Moskowitz’s group then posted guards at the church compound and, about a year ago, began renovating the buildings. But Moskowitz's men, headed by his local partner Aryeh King, a Jerusalem city councilman and long-time right-wing activist, kept the project and the new owner's true identity secret, including from the Israel Defense Forces.

The report in Haaretz revealed the group's intention to turn the compound into a settlement. The Gush Etzion local council therefore asked Ya’alon to approve adding it to the municipality’s jurisdiction. Ya’alon has agreed to this request, and the military commander in the territories signed off on the order.