Israel to take 1,000 acres in West Bank for Jewish settlers
Jerusalem • The Israeli government announced Sunday that it would appropriate almost 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank that could be used to build homes for Jewish settlers.
The Israeli group Peace Now, which opposes expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, called it the largest land appropriation in 30 years.
The Civil Administration, the Israeli military authority responsible for implementing government policy in the West Bank, said the decision was based on the "instructions of the political leadership" after Operation Brother’s Keeper, the security sweep in June that followed the killing of three Israeli teens abducted in the area.
In recent weeks, leaders of the Islamist militant movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is branded a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, have indicated that their operatives were behind the kidnapping.
On Sunday, Israel formally began the process of converting the 1,000 acres into "state land." The area lies west of Bethlehem in a section of the West Bank that Israelis call Gush Etzion, a cluster of nine Israeli settlements.
According to Peace Now, 10 Jewish families live at the site and operate a religious school.
A leader of the council that administers the Gush Etzion settlement bloc told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the appropriation paves the way for the establishment of a city to be called Gvaot.
Those who oppose the appropriation plan have 45 days to express their objections. According to the news agency Reuters, the mayor of a nearby town said Palestinians owned the tracts and harvested olives there.
Palestinians want to create a sovereign state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and they say Israel’s settlement construction makes their dream of a contiguous, viable state less achievable.
Hanan Ashrawi, a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the move "clearly represents Israel’s deliberate intent to wipe out any Palestinian presence on the land and to willfully impose a de facto one-state solution."
Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project, speculated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was likely to have approved such a large land appropriation.
"Netanyahu is weakening the moderate voices of the Palestinians and strengthening Hamas and those who say they don’t talk to the Israelis because they do not want peace," Ofran said.
At his weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu did not specifically address the appropriation, but he did say, "Our hand has been extended in peace to those of our neighbors who want peace, and we have always fought vigorously, and with strength, against those who wish to destroy us, while building up our state, our cities and our communities."
In other developments Sunday, Israel’s military said it fired a Patriot missile to bring down a drone that flew from Syria into Israeli-controlled airspace over the Golan Heights.
Israeli military officials suggested that the drone had entered the area by mistake and that the unmanned aircraft probably belonged to the Syrian military, not to a rebel group.
Rebels with Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaida, have taken control of the U.N.-manned border crossing on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Forty-four U.N. peacekeepers from Fiji were taken captive by Islamist militants there Thursday.
Israel shoots down drone from Syria
Jerusalem » The Israeli military said Sunday that it shot down a drone that entered Israeli-controlled airspace from neighboring Syria, heightening tensions in the volatile Golan Heights. Military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the aircraft apparently belonged to the Syrian military and accidentally crossed over into the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan. It was shot down with a Patriot missile.
“We have repeatedly stated that we will respond to any breach of Israel’s sovereignty and will continue to act to maintain safety and security,” Lerner said.
The military said the incident occurred near Quneitra, a main crossing point between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan, the scene of heavy rebel and troop fighting recently.
Israel has avoided taking sides in the three-year civil war in Syria, though Israeli troops have responded to occasional mortar fire that has landed on the Israeli side of the Golan. Israel says some of the attacks have been accidental spillover, while others have been intentional. It has always held Syria responsible for any cross-border fire.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war from Syria and subsequently annexed it in a move that has never been internationally recognized. - The Associated Press