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The Israeli government’s plan to back a settlement in the occupied West Bank violates international humanitarian law and should be stopped, Human Rights Watch said today. Israeli restrictions on the Palestinian population caused by the Israeli-only settlements and infrastructure also seriously infringe on the right to freedom of movement and other basic rights of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Israeli defense ministry officials have sought approval for the construction of 22 houses in Maskiot, a former Israeli army base in the Jordan Valley. It is the first time Israel has sanctioned new building on the site, effectively ending a nine-year moratorium on the creation of new settlements. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose ministry oversees the occupied territories, has yet to make a final decision. The last time Israel gave approval to a new settlement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories was in 1999.

“If Israel approves this West Bank settlement, it will be breaking repeated promises to halt all new settlement activity and violating international law,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than expanding these illegal settlements, the Israeli government should be dismantling them.”

The defense ministry’s proposals come amid a rapid acceleration of house-building within existing West Bank settlements and despite Israel’s November 2007 commitments at the Annapolis peace conference to halt further development.

According to figures released by the defense ministry in July, the Jewish settler population within the West Bank and East Jerusalem grew by 5.5 percent in the last year and is now estimated to include more than 400,000 people, almost four times what it was a decade ago. Since the Annapolis agreement, the Israeli government has contended that it is permitted to expand housing within existing settlements. But the defense ministry’s plan to approve construction for the first time in Maskiot would breach even that claimed limit.

In 2006, Israel had announced plans to build a new settlement in Maskiot, but then-defense minister Amir Peretz abandoned the proposal amid international criticism. Despite that policy reversal, 12 families have set up temporary homes within the former base at Maskiot. Israel evacuated these families from its settlements in Gaza three years ago and promised not to relocate them to the West Bank. The government’s plan would formalize their stay in the West Bank, contrary to its previous commitments.

Israel’s policy of encouraging, financing, establishing, and expanding Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories violates international humanitarian law concerning occupied territories. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which applies to the territories, Israel is prohibited from transferring civilians from its own territory into the occupied territory and is prohibited from creating permanent changes in the occupied territory that are not for the benefit of the occupied population. Several United Nations Security Council resolutions have demanded that Israel remove its settlements from the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The Israeli government has suggested that the existence of settlements may influence territorial concessions that might be part of any future peace deal. For example, speaking of prospective peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a July 2007 interview with the PBS program Newshour in the United States that “the demographic changes will have to be considered and the population centers most likely will have to be taken into account.”

Human Rights Watch called upon the United States, by far the largest donor to Israel (US$2.8 billion in 2008), to take measures to avoid being financially complicit in the expansion of settlements and the security measures that they entail. First, the US government should, publicly and forcefully, state its opposition to any further settlement expansion and, second, deduct from US aid to Israel an amount equal to Israel’s expenditures on the settlements.

“The United States should make clear that it will have nothing to do with illegal new settlement construction,” said Whitson.

Israel maintains strict rules in the West Bank based on nationality that discriminate against the Palestinian population. The settlements house only Israeli citizens and, by virtue of a strict permit system, enforced by the Israel Defense Forces and settlement committees, the Israeli government prohibits Palestinians in the West Bank from driving on the “settler-only” roads or attending “settler-only” schools.

At times, Israel has sought to justify the settler-only roads as necessary to protect the security of the settlers. In light of the unlawful nature of the settlements, the best way to protect the security of the settlers would be to evacuate them to Israel. Even while the settlements remain, the rules banning all vehicles registered in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from traveling on such roads are not narrowly tailored to meet risks to security in a way that minimizes restrictions on Palestinian travel, because the rules treat every West Bank Palestinian as a security threat without attempting to limit restrictions to those who are shown to pose a genuine threat.

As the Israeli occupation of the West Bank enters its fifth decade, there is a growing view that Israel is bound not only by international humanitarian law governing the exceptional situation of occupation but also by international human rights law, which imposes additional obligations on how a state treats all those under its control. For example, in 2007, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – the official body that interprets obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Israel has ratified – reiterated that Israeli settlements in the West Bank “are not only illegal under international law but are an obstacle to the enjoyment of human rights by the whole population, without distinction as to national or ethnic origin.”

Similar obligations are imposed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which Israel has also ratified. These legally binding treaties prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground, such as race, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, or other status.

Expanding Israeli settlements will impose further discrimination on Palestinians in violation of the basic rights to freedom of movement and residence, to own property alone as well as in association with others, and to housing.

The maintenance and expansion of the settlements also have seriously affected humanitarian conditions in Palestinian communities, restricting their freedom of movement and access to supplies and essential services and land. In Hebron, Israel has justified the removal of Palestinian residents from a large part of the city center in order to secure the expanded Jewish settler population there.

Research by Human Rights Watch also shows that Israeli settlements have contributed to a deteriorating security environment, prompting clashes between Israeli security forces and local residents, and between Palestinians and Israeli settlers. Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations in the region have documented frequent crimes by settlers against Palestinians living near settlements that have often gone unpunished by the Israeli authorities. Most recently, in June 2008, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem recorded film of settlers beating a Palestinian shepherd, his wife and their nephew for letting their animals graze near the settlement of Susia in the West Bank. (Israeli police arrested two settlers, but have not brought charges against them to date.) There are also frequent incidents of Palestinians stoning or attacking settlers or Israel Defense Forces, which the Israeli authorities investigate and prosecute.

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