Another Annexation Development: Government Allocates New Lands to Settlements and Formalizes Allocation Process through the Settlement Division

On August 27, 2023, the Israeli government decided to allocate lands to the Mevo’ot Jericho and Amichai settlements through the Settlement Division, despite the legal challenges and criticisms associated with this move. Furthermore, the government announced its intention to regularize the land allocation process, effectively ignoring international law and its temporary statute of an occupied territory, and thus effectively seeking to enable continued takeover of lands discreetly and away from public scrutiny. The intention of regulating the process of allocating the lands can be seen as another step towards annexation, and there is a concern about transforming the Settlement Division into a legal entity of the government for the authorization and development of settlements.

The Settlement Division, established by the Israeli government shortly after 1967, serves as a non-governmental body designed to tackle “sensitive” tasks that the official government finds challenging to address openly. These tasks primarily involve establishing settlements, outposts, and agricultural farms in the occupied territories. In previous reports, we’ve delved extensively into the complex issues surrounding the transfer of land from abandoned government property to the Settlement Division

The main responsibility given to the Settlement Division by the government was the management of lands for the purpose of setting up these settlements. Initially, wholesale land allocations totaling hundreds of thousands of dunams were carried out, and since 1967, the Israeli government has provided the Settlement Division with roughly half a million dunams of land for establishing and advancing settlements. Throughout the years, there have also been instances where the Settlement Division has allocated privately owned Palestinian land not under its supervision for settlement purposes, effectively giving a kind of “green light” for thievery. In 2021, Peace Now lodged a petition seeking transparency in land allocations under the purview of the Settlement Division (HCJ 2174/21), and this legal action is still in progress. In recent years, the government refrained from granting new lands to the Settlement Division, opting for limited and specific allocations instead. The recent decision signifies a noteworthy shift, indicating the government’s intent to formalize the process of land management in the territories by officially outsourcing it to the Settlement Division.

The implication of Clause 4 is to formalize the process of land allocation in the West Bank, including rights for allocation and leasing to settlers, and effectively outsourcing the authority to the Settlement Division.

Clause 4 of the government decision approved on Sunday, stated that Minister Smotrich is looking to carry out preparatory work to streamline how land is allocated in the West Bank, encompassing allocation and leasing rights for settlers.

This statement carries a significant meaning, outlining the government’s intention to transform the Settlement Division into the key legal entity responsible for qualifying and developing settlements. A draft bill, aligned with this approach, was put forward by MK Smotrich back in 2018.

During the discussions that occurred at the time in the Knesset, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, speaking on behalf of Attorney General Mendelblit, cautioned that such action would breach international law and fundamentally alter the status of land in the West Bank:

This is about relinquishing the state’s fiduciary obligations in the region and effectively elevating the Settlement Division to a governing body with sweeping authority over land in Judea and Samaria. Land management is one of the most significant authorities that should remain under state control… given that we’re operating in an area controlled by the military commander, an area defined as under belligerent occupation in international law… this territory should be managed by the military commander with consideration for both short-term dynamics and the interests of the protected population, which, in the majority of cases in Judea and Samaria, happens to be the Palestinian population. Consequently, there’s a collision between short-term considerations and permanent settlements. When a clear governmental authority, originally the responsibility of a proper governmental body, shifts to a non-governmental entity, it’s a concerning change. Here, significant funding is also in play… at the moment, we’re in a situation where the same entity serves as a vital resource manager, funded by the government, but lacks oversight and transparency, providing reports only in hindsight. It wields control over hundreds of thousands of dunams.”

Across the West Bank, there are currently dozens of agricultural farms spread out, collectively controlling tens of thousands of dunams of land. This control stems from documents granted by the Settlement Division. Among these farms, some focus on areas with loose regulations for cultivation and grazing, encompassing thousands of dunams. Remarkably, these extensive land areas are handed over to settlers without oversight, without assessment by a Blue Line team, devoid of any tender process, and without the knowledge of the official responsible for government property at the Civil Administration. This administrative body oversees land in the territories and functions akin to the Israel Land Authority in Israel. Formalizing the Settlement Division as the official entity in charge of land allocation to settlers will be another significant annexation act of Area C in the West Bank.

Land Allocations for the Settlements of Mevo’ot Jericho and Amichai

The establishment of the Mevo’ot Jericho settlement as an outpost occurred in 1999, and it was officially recognized as a settlement by the government in 2019. Amichai was established in 2017 as a settlement for residents of the Amona outpost, following a Supreme Court ruling that led the Israeli government to evict it.

The government’s decision on Sunday instructed the appointed official responsible for the Custodian of Government and Abandoned Property in the Civil Administration to allocate lands, including agricultural areas, to the Settlement Division, which will then transfer the lands for the settlements.  Since these settlements are already established and have already been regularized and recognized by the Israeli government, the State opts to allocate the land without a tender process, without transparency, and often without compensation. Alternatively, the Israeli government could have decided to implement a regulated process for allocating lands to settlements under the management of the Custodian of Government and Abandoned Property, with payment and following official tenders. However, with regard to settlements, it’s more convenient for the government to work behind the scenes and delegate the task of managing land transfers to the Settlement Division.

Peace Now: “Allowing the Settlement Division to manage these lands in the occupied territories is comparable to entrusting a fox with guarding the henhouse. This essentially amounts to privatizing land management, which is inconsistent with democratic governance and is unlawful within occupied territories according to international law. The Settlement Division has previously been directly implicated in the appropriation of Palestinian private lands and continues to assist settlers in acquiring extensive lands within the territories, often without public tenders and behind closed doors. It operates autonomously, ignoring the governmental oversight bodies that are supposed to supervise its activities. Despite facing severe criticism from the State Comptroller and the Legal Advisor to the Government in the past, the Netanyahu-Smotrich administration has opted to persist in this direction and formalize the process.”