Plans reportedly underway to expand Israeli settlements in the city of Hebron in the southern occupied West Bank would constitute "right of return for Jews only" at the expense of local Palestinians, representing a "clear bending" of both Israeli and international law, Israeli NGO and settlement watchdog Peace Now said on Monday.
According to a statement released by the group, renovations were already underway at the Israeli military compound of Plugat Hamitkanim to pave the way for new housing for Jewish settlers.
It would mark the first settlement expansion in Hebron city in over a decade, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The area was seized through an Israeli military order during the 1990s. As noted by Peace Now, using military land for a settlement would violate both a 1979 Israeli Supreme Court decision and international law.
The housing plan reportedly seeks to sidestep the law by deducting the area in question from its military designation.
"What is happening in Hebron is a clear bending of the law, according to which a land seized for military purposes cannot be used for the purpose of settlement," Peace Now wrote, adding that "the Israeli government continues to find new ways to accommodate the extreme settlers in the city of Hebron, where the occupation is the most apparent and most severe."
Israeli settlers and security forces have argued that the land belonged to Jews before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and that the settlement was planned long before the land was seized by the military, according to Haaretz.
However, Peace Now argued that since the land was leased to the Hebron municipality -- first by the Jordanians and then by Israel -- should the military seizure be lifted, the land must be returned to its Palestinian owners.
"If the military necessity is no longer there, the land must be returned to its owners and the protected lease agreement with the Hebron municipality must be renewed," the group wrote in a letter to the Israeli Defense Minister and to the head of the Civil Administration, in which they demanded the establishment of the new settlement be prevented.
"Instead, what we are seeing is the implementation of the 'right of return' to Jews only and at the expense of the protected (Palestinian) tenants."
Before the Israeli military base was established, the area, located in the heart of Hebron, was used as the city's central bus station. The land was owned partly by Palestinian individuals and Jewish individuals since before 1948, who leased it to the municipality.
After its expropriation by the Israeli military, settlers in the 1990s moved into the outpost illegally, but were later expelled when the seizure order was issued.
Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) told Haaretz in response to an inquiry on the reports that "authorities in the area are examining returning some of the land for civilian use," referring to the outpost. "However, plans for civilian building have not yet been submitted or approved."
"The settlement in Hebron is the most extreme and callous of all, and the Netanyahu government is trampling legal standards to build a settlement exactly where the occupation and separation are the most callous and severe," Hagit Ofran of Peace Now told Haaretz.
Israeli settlers in the Hebron area are notoriously aggressive towards Palestinians. Hebron residents frequently report attacks and harassment by the settlers, carried out in the presence of Israeli forces.
Mistreatment of Palestinians in the Hebron area has been common since the city was divided in 1997 under the Oslo agreements.
The area is home to 30,000 Palestinians and around 800 Israeli settlers who live under the protection of Israeli forces.
While the plan for the Plugat Hamitkanim outpost would reportedly only amount to a small number of residences, Israel has come under harsh criticism for a spike in illegal settlement activity in recent weeks, with plans for thousands of housing units moving forward in various stages in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Human rights groups and international leaders have strongly condemned Israel's settlement construction, claiming it is a strategic maneuver to prevent the establishment of a contiguous, independent Palestinian state by changing the facts on the ground, while members of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, have publicly announced their support for plans aimed to annex the entirety of Area C.
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