U.S. Mulls More Steps in Response to Israel’s Land Grab in West Bank

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The West Bank settlement of Efrat is seen on September 1, 2014. Credit: AFP

The Obama administration is considering taking further action regarding Israel’s expropriation of 1,000 acres of West Bank land this week, on top of the condemnation Washington has already issued.

“Maybe our reaction will find expression in other ways,” a senior U.S. official told Haaretz, but declined to give details.

On Sunday, the Civil Administration governing the West Bank, which is subject to the Defense Ministry, announced the expropriation of around 4,000 dunams of land near five Palestinian villages in the Bethlehem area. It declared the land state land.

The Civil Administration said the move had been ordered by the government in response to the abduction and murder of three Jewish teenagers in the Hebron area in June. The expropriation was designed to create contiguity between the Green Line and the settlements Betar Ilit, Kfar Etzion and Gva’ot.

A senior Israeli official said the expropriation announcement “drove the Americans nuts.” In recent days senior officials in the Obama administration have sent extremely sharply worded messages to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.

The protest by Washington was also expressed in a telephone conversation between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Netanyahu on Tuesday night.

The State Department said in a statement that Israel’s expropriation was “deeply concerning.” It urged Jerusalem to “reverse the decision.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the decision to expropriate the land, and reports of further settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, sent a “very troubling message.” These moves ran “contrary to Israel’s stated goal of a two-state solution” and a peace deal with the Palestinians. 

Sources have told Haaretz, however, that this statement did not fully convey the administration’s anger.

In recent days attempts have been made by the national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, and other Netanyahu advisers to calm the Americans down. The Israeli officials told the Americans it would take years until any construction was carried out in the area. The move was a long process that still required a number of stages of approval.

Netanyahu’s advisers added that the move had taken the prime minister’s aides by surprise; Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had not coordinated it with them. The aides had not been informed in advance about the Civil Administration’s announcement, or the timing.

An aide to Ya’alon confirmed that the prime minister’s aides had not been told of the move; he said this was not necessary because it was only a technical procedure.

A senior Israeli official said the move began at a meeting of the security cabinet after the murder of the three teens. At the session, Ya’alon suggested that as part of the response to the killing, Israel should turn the Gva’ot outpost in the Gush Etzion area into a new settlement.

The establishment of a new settlement requires a cabinet decision, but no decision on the issue was made at that security-cabinet meeting.

Despite the absence of a decision, Ya’alon instructed the Civil Administration to advance the administrative procedures for expropriating the land. The Civil Administration surveyed the area to make sure the land intended for Gva’ot was not privately owned by Palestinians.

The Civil Administration found that no land in the area was privately owned and thus announced the expropriation.

Palestinian residents of the area will be able to submit objections to the move in the next 45 days.

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