Biden Admin Calls New West Bank Settlement Development Talk ‘Counterproductive’ to Peace

Biden Admin Calls New West Bank Settlement Development Talk ‘Counterproductive’ to Peace
White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby speaks alongside White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre during a daily news briefing at the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Feb. 13, 2024. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Ryan Morgan

Israeli plans to expand settlements in the West Bank have drawn rebuke from President Joe Biden’s administration, who have called the plans “counterproductive” to efforts at a peaceful settlement of the long-running conflict in the region.

The West Bank has been the site of ongoing violence between the territory’s Palestinian Arab majority and Israeli settlers increasingly building settlements within the territory. A trio of attackers opened fire on motorists in the Israeli settlement community of Ma'ale Adimum on Thursday, killing one and injuring eight others.

Responding to the Thursday shooting, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich vowed Israel will continue to build settlements in the West Bank.

“The serious attack on Ma'ale Adumim must have a determined security response but also a settlement response,” Mr. Smotrich said in a Thursday X post. “I demand [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] to approve the convening of the Mata and immediately approve plans for thousands of housing units in Ma'ale Adumim and the entire region. Our enemies know that any harm to us will lead to more construction, more development, and further solidify our presence throughout the land.”

Mr. Smotrich, who is himself a West Bank settler, has specifically called for building 2,350 new housing units in Ma’ale Adumim, 694 more in the Israeli settlement of Efrat, and 300 more in the Israeli settlement of Kedar.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced the reported settlement plans during a visit to Buenos Aires, Argentina on Friday.

Mr. Blinken denounced the Thursday shooting in Ma'ale Adimum as “another horrific terrorist attack” and said the U.S. will continue to “fully support Israel’s right to security, to self-defense.” But, the secretary of state said the administration is disappointed in the talk of new Israeli construction in the West Bank settlements.

“It’s been long-standing U.S. policy under Republican and Democratic administrations alike that new settlements are counterproductive to reaching an enduring peace,” he said. “They’re also inconsistent with international law. Our administration maintains a firm opposition to settlement expansion and, in our judgment, this only weakens, it doesn’t strengthen, Israel’s security.”

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby similarly condemned Israeli settlements as inconsistent with past Republican and Democratic administrations, as well as international law.

While the U.S. government has routinely opposed Israeli settlements, President Donald Trump’s administration did begin articulating a differing opinion on the matter beginning in November of 2019, when then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Israeli settlements are “not per se inconsistent with international law.” The Biden administration didn’t immediately describe a reversal of the Trump-era view when it took office in 2021, but has become more vocally critical of such settlements in recent months.

Biden Admin Previously Sanctioned West Bank Settlers

The West Bank is a territory bordered to the north, west, and south by Israel and to the east by Jordan. The territory has been under varying degrees of Israeli military and civil administration after Israeli forces seized control of the land during the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel has not formally annexed the West Bank but maintains administrative control of sections of the territory.
The 15-member United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution in 1967 calling for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the West Bank. The U.S. government, which has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, has for years referred to the West Bank as an occupied territory subject to the jurisdiction of both the Israeli government and Palestinian authorities.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been a longstanding point of contention in the long-running Israeli–Palestinian conflict, with opponents arguing that the settlements increasingly carve into territory claimed by the Palestinian people and undermine efforts at a two-state solution.

The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution in 2016 declaring these Israeli settlements to be a “flagrant violation” of international law. The 14 of the 15 U.N. Security Council members supported the 2016 resolution. The United States, which has veto power as one of five permanent U.N. Security Council members, abstained from the vote.

The Biden administration has assessed heightened levels of violence between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank throughout 2023, even before the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks near the separate Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip.

The Biden administration announced visa restrictions in December, barring entry into the United States by Israeli settlers believed to be linked to violence in the West Bank. This month, the Biden administration also announced targeted sanctions against four Israeli nationals accused of participating in various violent clashes in the West Bank, including at least one incident that resulted in a Palestinian civilian’s death.

‘No Israeli Occupation’ in Gaza: Biden Admin

Beyond the concerns about new settlement construction in the West Bank, Biden administration officials have also urged the Israeli government not to carry on a long-term occupation of the Gaza Strip or to otherwise shrink their presence there after the current Israel–Hamas conflict ends.
Mr. Netanyahu began circulating a proposal for Israel’s posture in the Gaza Strip after defeating Hamas. The plan entails Israeli forces continuing to operate throughout the territory, for an indeterminate stretch of time, to prevent a Hamas resurgence, The Times of Israel reported.

Mr. Netanyahu’s plan also calls for the shuttering of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which the Israeli side has accused of being infiltrated by Hamas sympathizers. Services throughout the Gaza Strip would be administered by “local officials” vetted and appointed by the Israeli government.

The post-war plan also reportedly entails the establishment of a “security zone” or “buffer zone” running along the Gaza Strip side of the Israel-Gaza boundary. Repairs for the wartime damage, largely wrought by Israeli forces, would reportedly be conditioned on the guarantee of demilitarization within a given area and would be funded by neighboring Arab countries.

Biden administration officials avoided directly commenting on Mr. Netanyahyu’s post-war plans, which had not been formally released on Friday, but did denounce several of the reported elements of the proposal in remarks on Friday.

“I haven’t actually seen the plan, so I want to reserve judgment until we actually see the details. Having said that you know that there’s certain basic principles that we set out many months ago that we feel are very important when it comes to Gaza’s future, including that it cannot be a platform for terrorism. There should be no Israeli reoccupation of Gaza. The size of Gaza’s territory should not be reduced,” Mr. Blinken said Friday.

“We want to make sure that any plan that emerges is consistent with those principles,” the secretary of state added.

Like Mr. Blinken, Mr. Kirby said the Biden administration doesn’t believe in reducing the overall size of the Gaza Strip. He also said Palestinians should not be forcibly displaced from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Kirby also said the Biden administration doesn’t wish to see Hamas return to power in the Gaza Strip. Still, he said the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip should have “a voice and a vote” in how the territory is handled after the current conflict, and said this could be done through the reestablishment of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian Authority, under the ruling Fatah political party, had controlled both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip before 2006, but Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) during the January 2006 Palestinian elections.

The Hamas-majority government rejected a post-election call by the Middle East Quartet (United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia) to eschew violence and recognize Israeli sovereignty. Hamas fighters also kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June of 2006, heightening international concerns about the new Palestinian Authority government. Israel responded to Mr. Shalit’s kidnapping with the arrest of dozens of Hamas officials residing in the West Bank, including 33 Hamas PLC members, effectively erasing the Hamas majority in the PLC.

Attempts were made to form a Hamas-Fatah government within the PLC, but this government collapsed and the two Palestinian political factions resorted to armed conflict. By June 2007, Hamas asserted political control over the Gaza Strip, while Fatah retained political control of the West Bank. Governance of the Palestinian territories has been split ever since.