x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Israel hits back at Palestinians by expanding settlements

Construction will further strain ties following Israel’s fierce opposition to the UN’s status upgrade for the Palestinians on Thursday.

TEL AVIV // Israel yesterday announced it would build 3,000 new houses in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in apparent retaliation for the successful Palestinian bid to win UN recognition as a non-member state.

The construction, confirmed by a senior Israeli government source, will further strain ties after Israel’s fierce opposition to the UN’s status upgrade for Palestine on Thursday.

Palestine Liberation Organisation official Hanan Ashrawi was quick to use the new UN status in response to the announcement.

“It is an act of Israeli aggression against a state and the world needs to take up its responsibilities,” Mr Ashrawi said.

The announcement came after a threat by Israel’s deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom, that Israel may begin an annexation of the West Bank, an area it has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Other senior Israelis yesterday called the UN vote “meaningless”, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, a “systematic refuser of peace talks”.

But analysts said the right-wing government was becoming worried about its deteriorating image abroad and rising disapproval, even among staunch allies in Europe, over its settlement policies.

“Government officials are nearly in panic,” said Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political scientist. “They are rushing to the media to say the UN decision was unimportant but this is a major setback for [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”

Mr Ezrahi said Mr Netanyahu had “lost a major card” in the  Israeli-Palestinian peace process because the international community had recognised Palestine without Israel’s agreement.

The Palestinians can use their new status to take legal action against Israel in the International Criminal Court, in the Hague, as a threat against Israel to force the country to make concessions in peace talks, he added.

The reactions yesterday by top officials, especially Mr Netanyahu who is seeking re-election in a January ballot, seemed mindful of catering to an increasingly right-wing, anti-Palestinian shift in the Israeli electorate by condemning the Palestinian leadership and suggesting Israel may retaliate.

And representatives of Jewish settlers in the West Bank said they had been lobbying the government to approve hundreds of new housing units there to show Israel’s settlement enterprise would not be undermined by the UN vote.

Mr Netanyahu said the resolution was “meaningless” and “won’t change anything on the ground”. He indicated Israel may respond with punitive measures by accusing the Palestinians of breaching international pacts by going to the UN unilaterally, and threatening that Israel “will act accordingly”.

Israeli officials have indicated the government may withhold at least two monthly transfers of tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, worth a total of about US$200 million (Dh734.6m).

Israel, they say, can claim those funds cover Palestinian debts for services such as electricity. That could be a major blow to the cash-strapped Palestinian government,

Anti-settlement activists in Israel said the vote could prove substantial in changing Israel’s approach to the settlements.

“It may have an impact on parts of the Israeli public opinion that don’t like Israel being internationally isolated and claim it will make the country more dependent on the US,” said Michael Warschawski, the founder of the Jerusalem-based Alternative Information Centre, an Israeli-Palestinian advocacy group in Jerusalem.

Dror Etkes, a prominent monitor and opponent of Israel’s settlement enterprise, predicted the Palestinians’ UN move may spur worry among Israeli officials.

“The tolerance of the international community towards Israel is ending,” Mr Etkes said.

“As Israel becomes more fanatic, the world understands there’s nothing more to do but to tell it that the game is over.”