The United States slammed Israeli plans to seize abandoned Palestinian property, so that it could relocate 40 settler families who live in the West Bank outpost of Amona.
“This would represent an unprecedented and troubling step,” said Elizabeth Trudeau is the US State Department’s director of its office for press relations.
She told reporters at the daily briefing in Washington on Thursday that such a step, was “inconsistent with prior Israeli legal opinions and counter to longstanding Israeli policy to not seize private Palestinian land for Israeli settlements.”
It was the fourth day in a row that a US State Department spokesperson had criticized Israeli actions in Area C of the West Bank.
While each statement was prompted by a reporter’s question, Thursday’s comments were prepared in advance.
She condemned Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s plan to use the abandoned property law to seize land own by Palestinians who left the West Bank decades ago.
According to the Defense Ministry, a tract of such abandoned property exists right next to the site of the current outpost.
The High Court of Justice has ruled that the outpost must be demolished by December 25 because it was built without permits on private Palestinian property.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had a firm policy since 2011, that building on private Palestinian property must be demolished.
Liberman’s proposal amends that policy. It differentiates between private Palestinian property whose owners live in the West Bank and those who have left that region.
According to Army Radio, Liberman’s proposal acknowledges the property rights of those initial landowners. Settlers would be charged rent and that money would be put in escrow for the owners should they be found.
But the plan, would mark the first time, since the 1979, that Israel has formulated a policy to sanction Jewish building on private Palestinian property.
The United States and the European Union have increasingly expanded their condemnation of settlement building to include land expropriations and the retroactive legalization of settler homes, particularly the outposts.
Israel has insisted that it has a right to build Jewish homes in Area C of the West Bank, but it has loosely adhered to the principle of not creating new settlements.
Since taking office, Netanyahu has worked to authorize already existing settler building, including the outposts, by declaring them to be neighborhoods of existing settlements.
Amona can not be legalized because it is located on private Palestinian property, nor can it be easily relocated because there are no tracts state land nearby, that are substantive enough to support a new community.
Liberman, therefore hopes, that the use of the abandoned property law, would allow the outpost to effectively remain in the same location, just a short distance away.
If his plan were to move forward, Amona would then be considered a new neighborhood of the nearby Ofra settlement.
But Trudeau said on Thursday, that the US is not swayed by Israel’s subtle legal differentiation between a new neighborhood and a new settlement.
“If this moves ahead, it would effectively create a new settlement or significantly expand the footprint of an existing settlement deep in the West Bank,” Trudeau said.
“This is a continuation of a process that has seen some 32 outposts that are illegal under Israeli law being legalized in recent years,” Trudeau said.
Such retroactive legalizations, she said, are one of a “number of trends that have been highlighted in the recent Quartet report that are threatening the two-state solution.”
She spoke in response to news that Israel’s office of the Custodian for Abandoned Properties and the Civl Administration published an the Al-Quds newspaper, that spoke of the government’s intent to seize abandoned property next to Amona.
It said that whose who could prove ownership of the property had 30 days to file an objection.
News of the ad was publicized by the non-governmental group, Peace Now, which had petitioned the High Court of Justice against Amona on behalf of landowners from the Palestinian village of Silwad.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit has yet to rule on the legality of Liberman’s plan, but he stated this week that work could move forward on the matter, until such time as he has issued his ruling.
Amona, which is located in the Binyamin region of the West Bank, was first constructed in 1995 with a NIS 2.16 million grant form the Ministry of Housing and Construction.