Israel is planning a multi-million dollar settlement expansion in the Golan Heights, which it seized militarily from Syria a half-century ago. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett unveiled the controversial plan on Sunday, which further involves a stated goal of doubling the number of Jewish settlers there within five years, according to Reuters.
The preliminary plan has been approved by Bennett's cabinet to see some 7,300 housing units built in Israel's main settlement in the Golan, called Katzrin, as well as in surrounding smaller communities. Recall that this comes after the prior Trump administration for the first time issued formal recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian border region.
Reuters emphasizes that "Prime Minister Naftali Bennett cited then-U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition in 2019 of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan and no sign that his successor, Joe Biden, intends to reverse the decision, as factors behind a multimillion-dollar housing and infrastructure plan for the area." So it will be interesting to see if this fresh bold plan will be met with objections from the Biden White House - though surely some corners of Europe are expected to condemn the move.
"This is our moment. This is the moment of the Golan Heights,” Bennett told a special cabinet meeting. "After long and static years in terms of the scope of settlement, our goal today is to double settlement in the Golan Heights. Interestingly, he's touting the move as largely a Trump admin achievement due to the historic recognition...
"It goes without saying that the Golan Heights are Israeli," Bennett told his cabinet in broadcast remarks.
"The fact that the Trump administration recognized that, and the fact that the Biden administration made clear there is no change in that policy, is also important." he said.
"The aim of the decision is to double the number of (Israeli) residents in the Golan in the coming years, meaning an addition of 23,000 people in the area," his office said further.
Currently, about 20,000 Syrian Druze still live in the 460-square-mile region, which Israel and Syria are still technically at war over after Tel Aviv declared its formal annexation in 1981. There are semi-frequent clashes between the Druze inhabitants and Israeli military forces, and also protests against continued occupation. Likely the construction of new settlements will trigger more unrest in the coming year.
As for the Biden admin stance on the matter, it remains ambiguous but there's been nothing so far to contradict the Trump police on the Golan. Secretary Blinken said earlier in the year that control over Golan is of "real importance to Israel's security," also saying, "Legal questions are something else and over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that's something we look at, but we are nowhere near that."
Israeli Government approves 1 Billion Shekel plan to develop the Golan Heights.— Prime Minister of Israel (@IsraeliPM) December 26, 2021
PM Bennett: “Our goal is to double the population of the Golan Heights”.
Further information >>https://t.co/YBi8nSPeFM pic.twitter.com/zDShsfXR8g
However, Biden's State Department recently angered Israeli leaders over plans to re-open a consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. Israel argues that this is a legal violation of the prior US recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, and further that there shouldn't be two separate American representations in the same "capital".