ISRAEL has reportedly halted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex the Jordan Valley in the wake of last week’s decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch a probe into the regime’s war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Christmas eve that the first meeting of an inter-ministerial committee on applying Israeli ‘sovereignty’ over the Jordan Valley had been cancelled last week, hours before it was scheduled to start.
The meeting of the panel, chaired by acting director general of the prime minister’s office Ronen Peretz, was cancelled after it became clear that an ICC announcement of a full investigation into Israeli war crimes was forthcoming.
‘Because of the decision of the prosecutor in The Hague, the issue of annexing the Jordan Valley will enter a deep freeze,’ an unnamed source told the Israeli daily.
The inter-ministerial committee had been tasked with formulating the Tel Aviv regime’s annexation move and a Knesset bill.
ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said last Friday she was satisfied that there was a ‘reasonable basis’ for launching a probe into the situation in Palestine.
‘I am satisfied that … war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem (al-Quds), and the Gaza Strip,’ she said.
That investigation would focus on the illegal settlements, the regime’s 2014 war on the Gaza Strip – another Palestinian territory, which has been blockaded by Tel Aviv since 2007 – and the regime’s bloody crackdown on the March of Return protests that began in Gaza last March in support of Palestinians’ right to return to their homeland.
About 600,000 Israelis live in over 230 settlements built since 1967 in defiance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334.
The 2014 war on Gaza – Israel’s second wholesale military operation against the coastal sliver – killed 2,251 Palestinians.
The regime has been responding with deadly fire to the ongoing weekly marches too, killing hundreds more of the impoverished territory’s residents.
On Sunday, however, Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted angrily to the prospect of the ICC probe, calling it ‘pure anti-Semitism’.
‘New edicts are being cast against the Jewish people – anti-Semitic edicts by the International Criminal Court telling us that we … are committing a war crime,’ he said.
The regime already enjoys the outright support of the US, which routinely vetoes UN resolutions that condemn Tel Aviv. It has also been trying to vindicate its actions by branding all instances of anti-Zionist criticism or action as ‘anti-Semitism’.
In September, Netanyahu vowed that if re-elected, he would immediately annex the Jordan Valley, a fertile strip of land that accounts for roughly one quarter of the West Bank.
Approximately 70,000 Palestinians and some 9,500 Israeli settlers currently live in the Jordan Valley.
The day before the ICC announcement, Netanyahu vowed to secure support from the US for the annexation of the Jordan Valley and other West Bank settlements.
‘The first thing we will do is to apply our sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and also in settlements, and we will do so with American recognition,’ he said.
Since taking office in 2017, US President Donald Trump has been showering Netanyahu with political gifts, including recognising Jerusalem al-Quds as Israel’s ‘capital’ and moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the occupied city as well as cutting aid to the Palestinians and closing the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s office in Washington.
Before Israel’s general elections in April, Trump signed a decree recognising Israeli ‘sovereignty’ over Syria’s occupied Golan Heights.
Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians and tourists gathered on Tuesday at the Manger Square in Bethlehem, marking the start of Christmas eve.
This year, smaller numbers of Palestinian Christians, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years, flocked to the biblical city. Many are choosing to leave their homeland to escape the nearly 60-years of Israeli occupation.
Living under military occupation, Palestinian Christians have been suffering as a result of Israel’s policies of land seizures (land grab), settlement construction, movement restrictions and, for those living in Jerusalem, the revocation of residency identity cards.
Fewer Christians from the besieged Gaza Strip will attend the Christmas celebrations than in previous years, as Israel has granted permits to around 300 out of 950 who applied, according to Wadi Abu Nassar, an advisor to the church hierarchs in the holy Land.
Local faithful and pilgrims gathered at the square outside the Church of the Nativity, where a 15-metre Christmas tree had been erected, and along the narrow cobble-stoned route, known as the Star Street.
The crowd, including children dressed as Santa Claus, were entertained as bagpipe-playing Palestinian scout groups paraded past the giant Christmas tree and Christmas carols in Arabic were played through loudspeakers.
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, headed the annual procession from the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem and to Manger Square, passing through a massive metal gate in the towering Israeli concrete wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
Pizzaballa was welcomed at Manger Square by clergy, dignitaries and a host of Palestinian officials ahead of the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus Christ was incarnated.
The most senior Roman Catholic cleric led the midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity, with President Mahmoud Abbas and a representative of Jordan’s King Abdullah II were expected to attend.
‘The number of tourists who have visited Palestine since the beginning of this year has exceeded 3,520,000, with an increase of 15.4 per cent compared with 2018,’ said the Minister of Antiquities Rula Maayah.
On Christmas eve, the Centre for Defence of Liberties and Civil Rights, Hurryyat, said in a report that the Israeli occupation authorities prevented 7,984 people from travelling during the last five years, nine per cent of whom are women.
Hurryyat said in a statement that 310 travel bans were documented since the beginning of this year, seven of which were issued against women, noting that this documentation is for individual bans, and excludes collective bans that sometimes affected an entire governorate, such as happened in Hebron governorate in 2014.
The centre slammed such measures as a flagrant violation of civil, economic, social and cultural human rights.
Also on Christmas eve, Israeli forces demolished two Palestinian residential structures in the southern West Bank district of Hebron.
Coordinator of the Anti-Wall and Settlement Committees, Rateb Jabour, said that Israeli forces escorted a bulldozer into Maghayer al-’Abeed area near Masafer Yatta, where the heavy machinery demolished a room belonging to Ibrahim Shehadeh.
On December 5, four residential structures were torn down in the same area.
Meanwhile, Jabour confirmed that a home was also torn down in As-Sam’, a town located to the south of Hebron.
The owner of the demolished structure was identified as Khader Ismail al-Hawamdeh.
Masafer Yatta is a collection of almost 19 hamlets which rely heavily on animal husbandry as the main source of livelihood.
Located in Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli administrative and military control, the area has been subjected to repeated Israeli violations by settlers and soldiers targeting their main source of living – livestock.
Israeli violations against the area include demolition of animal barns, homes and residential structures. The issue of construction permits by Israel to local Palestinians in the area is non-existent.
While Israel refuses to permit virtually any Palestinian structure in Area C, it much more easily gives the estimated 550,000 Jewish Israeli settlers there building permits and provides them with roads, electricity, water and sewage systems that remain inaccessible to many neighbouring Palestinians.
In addition to the investigation launched by the ICC against Israel’s alleged war crimes, the United Nations’ anti-racism panel is set to probe grievances by Palestinians holding Israel responsible for practising ‘apartheid’ in the Tel Aviv-occupied West Bank.
Israel’s Channel 13 reported on Monday that the Geneva-based UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) had decided on December 12 to investigate the complaints it had received last year.
Israeli foreign ministry officials, however, told the channel that the occupying regime may not cooperate with the probe if summoned to a hearing in Geneva, where CERD is based.
Tel Aviv has repeatedly been accused of engaging in systematic and deadly racist acts against Palestinians since 1948, when it overran vast swathes of regional Arab countries. The regime has come under heightened criticism since 1967 after it seized more regional territory – including the West Bank – and began to prop up settlements there.
The committee is now expected to use its findings to rule on the matter and publish recommendations.