Illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank surged 40 percent in 2016 from the previous year.
Jerusalem – Driving northbound from Jerusalem on Route 60, one cannot miss the abundance of olive groves on both sides of the road.
Turning east after the Palestinian town of Turmus Aya will take visitors to the occupied West Bank villages of Qaryut and Jalud, where the groves are even richer. On a recent afternoon in Jalud, from a hilltop amid the olive trees, yellow construction vehicles can be spotted in the distance, breaking ground on a road leading to the new Israeli settlement of Amichai.
“The jurisdiction of Amichai encircles private land, and that will prevent the owners from reaching it,” Gilad Grossman, spokesman for the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, told Al Jazeera.
For Palestinians, new settlements usually mean a loss of their land or restrictions on access. Settlements, which are considered illegal under international law, also come with threats of settler attacks on Palestinian lives and property.
In conjunction with Jalud’s village council, last month Yesh Din filed a petition to Israel’s Supreme Court to challenge the settlement’s jurisdiction, with an ultimate goal to halt construction at Amichai, which translates to “My People Live”. The state has until September to respond.
When construction began late last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proudly tweeted: “After decades, I have the privilege to be the prime minister who is building a new community in Judea and Samaria,” referring to the Israeli name for the occupied Palestinian territory. Amichai will be the first new Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank in 25 years.
Construction on Amichai, which is intended to house several dozen Jewish families, began less than five months after the eviction of settlers from the Amona outpost northeast of Ramallah. It is intended to house the evicted settlers and will neighbour several other Jewish settlements and outposts in the area.
Abdel Allah Haj Mohammad, who heads the village council in Jalud, noted that most of his village’s land has become inaccessible to Palestinians due to army orders and the presence of other Jewish settlements.
“The settlement [construction] started in 1978, but it intensified during the Second Intifada, when Area C was closed off and the settlers were allowed to build,” Mohammad told Al Jazeera.
In nearby Qaryut, Muhammad Ahmad Mekbel, 76, said that while his farmland has not been officially confiscated by the Israeli army, it is no longer reachable, as the area where it is located has been closed to Palestinians. He can reach his land only a few days a year, during a short window given by the Israeli army for Palestinian farmers to plough their fields. But he does not plant anything, for fear of settler attacks on the crops.
“It is useless,” he said. He nevertheless spends around $600 annually to plough the land, in an effort to prove that it has not been abandoned, which could be grounds for Israeli confiscation.
“In June of 2007, they [Jewish settlers] came and uprooted the olive trees – all of them, 300 trees … I used to make 100 barrels of oil each year; today I only make one,” Mekbel added.
There are also fears of future escalation as more settlers converge on the region. Two weeks ago, two dozen olive trees in Qaryut belonging to four farmers were set ablaze, allegedly by Jewish settlers, said Bashar el-Qaryoti, a local activist and village council member. Police have opened an investigation into the incident.
“East of Jalud, there is a settlement that is home to the price-tag gangs, who attack residents,” Qaryoti told Al Jazeera. “They shoot at farmers … It is the same settlement [from where] the killers of the Dawabsheh family came.”
At the site of the recent blaze, nearly two weeks after the fire, one olive tree continued to smoulder, smoke puffing from its trunk in the midday heat.
The launch of construction at Amichai coincided with last month’s visit to Ramallah by US officials, aimed at restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The efforts have been criticised by Palestinian legislative council member Hatem Abdel Qader.
“In practice, now that a new settlement is being built, the Palestinian demand of a settlement halt as a condition to resume negotiations has been dropped,” Abdel Qader said, noting that PA President Mahmoud Abbas likely elected to ignore the settlement issue in return for US involvement in the peace process.
“This ‘bet on Trump’ carries a risk, because if the US administration finds a big gap – and there is one, of course, between the Palestinian and Israeli positions – it will pull out of the peace process … and Israel will have in the meantime secured more settlements,” he added.