Israeli Government Sets Jurisdiction for New Settlement Near Bethlehem

Less than two weeks after the cabinet’s decision to establish five new settlements, the Commander of the Central Command signed an order designating the jurisdictional area of the new settlement “Nahal Heletz,” planned in the Bethlehem area. Determining the jurisdictional area is the first step (following a government decision) in the process of establishing a settlement, after which the land can be allocated and planning can begin. It should be noted that the designated jurisdictional area does not include the two illegal outposts that have been established in the area in recent years.

The new settlement is intended to disrupt the Palestinian territorial continuity west of Bethlehem.

The planned settlement, named “Nahal Heletz,” is located in the heart of a Palestinian area in the Bethlehem region—between the western villages of Walaja, Battir, and Husan, and the adjacent areas of Beit Jala and Al-Khader, which are near Bethlehem. Approximately 25,000 Palestinians reside in the villages west of Bethlehem, forming part of the Palestinian space in the region. The establishment of the settlement aims to sever their connection to Bethlehem, turning them into an enclave within Israeli territory and thereby preventing the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state.

In past negotiations, both official and unofficial, Palestinian agreement to retain the settlements of Gush Etzion under Israeli control in exchange for land swaps was conditional on maintaining a sustainable continuity for the Bethlehem area. According to these agreements, the Gush Etzion settlements were supposed to be connected to Israel from the southwest (see, for example, the area marked for annexation to Israel in light blue on the map according to the proposal agreed upon in the Geneva Initiative). The decision to establish the Nahal Heletz settlement aligns with the cabinet’s February 2023 decision to establish the “Sde Boaz” settlement to its south, thereby creating a continuous Israeli settlement block between Gush Etzion and Jerusalem and cutting through the Palestinian continuity.

And so the move was described by sources connected to Minister Smotrich, quoted in the Israel Hayom newspaper last week:

“Maps and classified documents obtained by “Israel Hayom” reveal for the first time a strategic plan initiated by Minister Bezalel Smotrich, through the Settlement Administration he established, aimed at blocking the establishment of a Palestinian state. The five settlements approved for construction last week by the Security Cabinet are the first step in a plan intended to prevent the Palestinians from having territorial continuity in Judea and Samaria. This time, the settlements are specifically intended to drive a wedge in very narrow corridors in Area B that are supposed to prevent Palestinian territorial continuity. Government sources say that this is just the first step. The Heletz Farm also completes a significant settlement continuity. Heletz was not on any settlement list for regularization, but the Settlement Administration understood it was a critical necessity because it connects Gush Etzion to Jerusalem.”

The jurisdictional area designated for the settlement contradicts all planning logic:

Within a UNESCO-designated World Heritage site under threat, defined by UNESCO in 2014 to preserve ancient and unique traditional agriculture in the area, the jurisdictional area is at the heart of this endangered World Heritage site. It’s important to note that during the same cabinet meeting where the decision was made to establish the settlement within the heritage site, the cabinet also decided that Israel would act to demolish Palestinian construction in the “Conservation Area” under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction, arguing it harms nature. In other words, according to the Israeli government, Palestinian construction harms nature, but Israeli construction does not. It should be remembered that the Conservation Area is territory Israel was supposed to transfer to Palestinian control according to the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. Still, Prime Minister Netanyahu refused to do so. Ultimately, after negotiations in the Wye Agreement, it was agreed that the area would be transferred to Palestinian control but they would be forbidden from building on it. For this reason, the area was designated as a “Conservation Nature Reserve,” meaning it was protected under a political agreement rather than professional standards for nature conservation. The cabinet decision addresses Palestinian construction that has begun within the Conservation Area, and according to it, Israel intends to violate the agreement and act to demolish buildings within an area that is supposed to be under Palestinian jurisdiction.

A relatively small jurisdictional area – only 120 dunams—stands in contradiction to all basic planning principles. In such a small area, there is no justification for establishing an independent settlement that lacks any significant development potential. Small settlements severely impact open spaces, require substantial resources for infrastructure and transportation, and contradict fundamental planning principles. The sole reason for establishing such a settlement is political: the desire to prevent a Palestinian territorial continuity in the Bethlehem area and the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

The jurisdictional area designated for the new settlement is situated very close to Palestinian homes—approximately 250 meters from Area B under Palestinian Authority control and the village homes of Battir. There are even some homes as close as 30-50 meters from the designated settlement area.

Ownership of the land in question deviates significantly from standard civil administration practices—in the 1980s, Israel declared approximately 80 dunams of the new jurisdictional area as “state lands.” However, this declaration was imprecise at the time, with unclear boundaries. Therefore, it has been decided that before any use of the land declared as state lands in the 1980s can proceed, a border accuracy process by the Blue Line Team is necessary. The jurisdictional area extends about 40 dunams beyond the area declared as state land in the 1980s, including approximately 40 dunams considered private property. Currently, the blue line team has prepared updated boundaries for state lands in the area, but this new line has not been published, and landowners have not yet had an opportunity to contest it. Thus, before the land can be legally allocated for construction plans, the new declaration boundaries need to be published and allow landowners to appeal, similar to the process of declaring state lands.

There is no access road to the planned settlement area—access is currently via dirt roads through private Palestinian lands. Legally, it is unclear how an access road to the settlement could be paved, as the Israeli Supreme Court ruling prohibits the expropriation of Palestinian lands for settlement purposes. Significant legal acrobatics will be required to facilitate the establishment of the settlement on this land.