Though illegal under international law, Israel's military-backed settlements in the Occupied West Bank have been expanding for decades. With Trump now in the White House, Israel is expecting more overt backing for its presence on Palestinian land.
Amona/Efrat/Ma'ale Admiun, OCCUPIED WEST BANK — They may not be castles, but they remind me of them. As a Welshman, I notice castles. The French Normans and their English descendants built the most expensive string of castles of their time in Wales during the 13th century. Eight centuries, after the Normans conquered Wales, the castle turrets fly Welsh flags. These days, they attract tourists rather than warriors.
In the West Bank, however, the hilltop "castles" are contemporary, and the conflicts are much more recent.
Despite security fears, flashes of conflict, shootings and stabbings, the "residential castles" of the West Bank – the Occupied Territories west of the Jordan River – belong to over 400,000 Israeli and Jewish settlers. More than 200,000 Israelis also live in east Jerusalem, which was occupied by the Israeli Army after the 1967 Six-Day War.
These areas are still under military rule rather than civilian law. You won't find that distinction, however, on Airbnb, a website which advertises rooms, apartments and homes all over the West Bank for tourists and visitors to rent. Israelis and visitors from abroad can experience "settlement life" with the simple click of a mouse.
Most Israeli settlements are built on high ground, in what they call "Samaria" and "Judea". For this reason, and also because they tend to be several stories high, they appear defensive in nature. They ring the hilltops and tower over the horizon. But more recently, the newer buildings are increasingly being built on the lower slopes — yet another sign of settlement expansion and establishment.
In the past four decades, the topography has changed much of the land beyond the Green Line. The border — disputed ever since Israel was founded in 1948 and mediated by the United Nations since 1949, in a bid to try and halt the fighting between Jews and Palestinians — is largely ignored by the Israelis. But ever since these Occupied Territories came under Israeli control, an estimated four million Palestinians live their daily lives under the watch of the Israeli military.
It's no wonder so many of these hilltop settlements — most of which loom some 700 to 1,000 metres above sea level — remind me of the hugely expensive medieval defensive forts in my country. Each successive Israeli government, well before the current right-wing coalition, has allowed ever more settlements and outposts to be built. Despite being illegal under international law, Israeli politicians have long quietly encouraged an expanding "facts on the ground" presence on Palestinian land.
Jad Isaac, the director of the Applied Research Institute in Bethlehem, says there is what he describes as an "easy" solution, if a peace agreement is ever to be formulated:
In Tel Aviv, Anat Ben Nun, spokesperson for the left-wing Israeli NGO Peace Now, told me that while Israel's "most right-wing government ever" allows settlements to continue to be built each year, it is within the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's authority to decree, at any time, to put a halt to the construction of settlements.
Of course, if he did, it would be seen as a sign of weakness. Not so much by Fatah, Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority, but by Likud's other right-wing coalition partners, which are part of Israel's government. And the allegations about corruption, which are swirling around Netanyahu, are already making life difficult for the Israeli leader.
Elad Ziv has no patience for Peace Now or any organisation on the left of Israel's politics.
"We have time," he tells me. He believes that more and more Israelis are voting for and favouring right-wing policies. Ziv attributes this to the perceived threat to their security, he says, the increase in the number of religiously motivated Israelis and their deep suspicion that Palestinians do not want to co-exist in Israel as part of a dual state sharing the same land.
"They are terrorists, they are savages…," he says, his voice rising in anger.
Ziv and his family live in Amona. On a windy hill, a string of low wooden temporary houses are home to 41 families. Amona is an extension of another Israeli settlement, called ‘Ofra'. Both settlements, like all the others on the West Bank, are regarded as illegal by the international community.
After a 2014 high court decision in Israel and several cabinet meetings in the Knesset found the settlement was illegally built on Palestinian land, Amona's residents are to be moved. Many of the original Palestinian landowners live in Jordan or the United States these days. But lawyers on behalf of the local mayor's office in Silwad have been diligent in gathering and presenting documents to the Israeli legal system.
Elad Ziv couldn't tell me how much money each settler family would receive for vacating Amona to move to another nearby hill – still within the Occupied Territories.
According to reports by Israeli media, a pot of public money of around 150 million Shekels ($40 million) has been set up to facilitate the move. At a time of widespread government cutbacks, $40 million isn't an insignificant sum.
Abdel-Rahman Saleh is a dapper seventy-year-old, wearing a natty cravat to keep the cold out. He's unfailingly hospitable. He offers water, tea, coffee, and even lunch to me and the TRT World crew, as he explains the complexities of the Amona case.
It's an important precedent for Israel, as moving settlers from a disputed site on Palestinian land doesn't happen often. Yet so far, not one settler in Amona has actually moved, and it remains unclear when and whether the government will enforce the high court's decision.
"[The Israeli military] will take the whole hill ... I expect the military will just move in and say for security reasons, we have to control this hill," Saleh says.
Next to Amona, is the third tallest ridge on the West Bank called Asour. It's 1,017 metres high. On a clear day, it's possible to see Amman, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea 430 metres below sea level. There is already a military camp present on the ridge, and Silwad's mayor fears the Israeli army will decide the Amona hill needs "defending" too and that it will be taken for "security" reasons.
Amona is small, with up to 300 settlers. Maále Adumim Amona has almost 40,000 residents, 10 kilometres east of Jerusalem. It's the third biggest settlement in the Occupied Territories, with a private bill introduced in the Knesset by a cabinet minister who's out to make mischief, and to capitalise on a new, more favourable, administration in Washington DC. Naftali Bennet is the Education Minister and leads the Jewish Home Party, the main pro-settler political party in Israel's coalition. His aim is to annex Maále and other large settlements, now that Barack Obama is out of office.
He and his supporters, many from several of Israel's right-wing parties, are also excited by President Donald Trump's pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Israel and the Palestinian Territories have received less media attention than usual over the past couple of years. That is likely to change in 2017.
AUTHOR: Iolo Ap Dafydd