LONDON — A row over the fate of Israeli settlements erupted in Israel following remarks by the US ambassador to Tel Aviv that a large-scale evacuation of Jewish settlers could spark civil war.
“These are people who are committed to this land as a God-given land. I believe that significant eviction could lead to civil war,” US Ambassador David Friedman told a delegation of Jewish-American leaders visiting Jerusalem.
Friedman said the prospect of intra-Israeli clashes was particularly worrying given the increase in the number of national-religious officers in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
“The command of the IDF is increasingly being held by religious Zionists,” he said.
Friedman stressed that Israel must retain control of the Jordan Valley for security reasons.
“The settlers are going nowhere,” said the US ambassador, who is a staunch supporter of Israeli settlements.
Friedman’s supposedly private remarks were reported in Hebrew by Israel’s Channel 10. The US Embassy in Israel said the comments were taken out of context.
“The Channel 10 report is based on three attendees at the conference who failed to provide much of the context behind Ambassador Friedman’s comments as well as significant additional and related remarks by the ambassador,” an embassy official told the Jerusalem Post.
“Ambassador Friedman made clear in his remarks that the president is committed to a comprehensive peace agreement that benefits both Israelis and Palestinians and that the United States is working on a plan to achieve that goal. As for settlements, the ambassador believes that unrestrained settlement growth is not helpful for peace.”
Still, the comments drew severe criticism.
“Friedman was suggesting that the situation in Israel is so febrile and its society so fragile that, should a legitimately elected government carry out a large-scale eviction of settlers, as has been done twice before, it could bring about civil war,” wrote Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz.
“His apparent ignorance of Israeli society, of the parameters of previous American peace plans and of the facts on the ground — all these pale beside his total lack of comprehension of the Israel Defence Forces. The IDF has never mutinied, never been close to it.”
Pfeffer also took aim at the Trump administration, whose policies are seen by Israeli supporters of the two-state solution as hindering the Middle East peace process.
“It’s hard to believe that [Friedman] is so ignorant as to be unaware of the parameters accepted by every American administration for the last quarter of a century, up until the Trump administration, that is. But then nothing is unbelievable when it comes to Trump’s crew,” wrote Pfeffer.
The controversy over Friedman’s remarks coincided with a report by a pro-settlement group suggesting that the number of settlers in the West Bank grew at nearly twice the rate of Israel’s overall population in 2017.
Prominent settler leader Yaakov Katz credited the Trump administration with the rise in numbers.
“We have to thank God he sent Trump to be president of the United States,” Katz told the Associated Press. “We are very, very, very happy with the Trump administration.”
Citing figures from Israel’s Interior Ministry that have not been made public, Katz said the West Bank settler population reached 435,159 at the start of 2018. He said he expected it to approach 500,000 by the end of Trump’s term in 2021.
“We are changing the map,” Katz said. “The idea of the two-state solution is over. It is irreversible.”
All Israeli settlements are illegal under international law because they are built on occupied territories. They are frowned upon by the international community because they have been among the main obstacles to Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
The UN Human Rights Council said it identified 206 companies doing business linked to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. It urged businesses to avoid doing work in Israeli settlements.
“In doing so, they are contributing to Israel’s confiscation of land, facilitate the transfer of its population into the Occupied Palestinian Territory and are involved in the exploitation of Palestine’s natural resources,” a recent UN report said.
The Israeli anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now reported a significant rise in settlement unit building late last year.
“The past few months have seen unprecedented developments in the settlements, causing severe damage to the chances of a two-state solution,” read a statement by the group in November.
“Accelerated population growth, approvals of housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, promotion of bypass roads, advancements of Knesset bills, home demolitions and changes in legal interpretations — all lead to a situation of de facto annexation of [West Bank] area C.
“The implications of the abovementioned developments are far-reaching for Israel, the Palestinians and the region as a whole.”
Mamoon Alabbasi is Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor of The Arab Weekly. You can follow him on Twitter @MamoonAlabbasi
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