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With the focus on Gaza, Israel expands Jewish settlements in the West Bank

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israel is expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Several recent moves are being described as the biggest seizure of Palestinian land for the settlers in more than 30 years.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre is following this from Tel Aviv. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, what exactly is the Israeli government doing?

MYRE: So the government approved nearly five square miles of, quote, "state land." Now, this means it's land that can now be used for settlements. It's deep inside the West Bank in the Jordan Valley near the border with Jordan. This was done quietly last week but wasn't published until Wednesday. And this follows two similar moves earlier this year that totaled about four square miles. So according to Peace Now, an Israeli monitoring group that opposes settlements, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has seized more West Bank land this year than in any year since the Israelis and Palestinians began peace negotiations way back in the 1990s.

INSKEEP: Some people will ask, I suppose, if Israel is acting now because they think international attention is focused in the other direction on the war in Gaza.

MYRE: Yeah, this is certainly one argument we're hearing. But the Israeli cabinet minister who's driving this is very open about his intentions. That's Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. He's a far-right politician and a West Bank settler himself who also has responsibility over settler issues. I spoke about him with Dror Etkes, an Israeli who opposes settlements and has been monitoring them for many years.

DROR ETKES: It's important to remember that these type of things are being done by all Israeli governments in the last 57 years. This is an Israeli policy. It's not Smotrich policy. Smotrich is doing it faster, more aggressive and he is more provocative about it.

INSKEEP: More provocative. OK, what response is he provoking?

MYRE: Well, you know, the Palestinians have had this long-standing position there can never be a viable Palestinian state with so many Israeli settlements in the West Bank. And the West Bank has been on boil since the Israel-Hamas war erupted in Gaza last October. There's a sharp increase in violence, and it has several dimensions. Jewish settlers have carried out hundreds of attacks against Palestinians. Jewish settlers are also attacked by Palestinians, though less frequently, and the Israeli military is battling Palestinian militants on a daily basis. Overall, since October, more than 550 Palestinians have been killed, as well as 12 Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank.

INSKEEP: All in this region that is not Gaza that is off to the east - north of Gaza, home to millions of people. How have Jewish settlements expanded there over time?

MYRE: Yeah, back when the Israelis and Palestinians started their peace negotiations in the - in 1990s, Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem numbered a little over a quarter million, and the expectation is that they would have to leave as part of an agreement - or many of them would. But that peace deal never happened, and settlements kept expanding. Today, that number has tripled to around three-quarters of a million. So this means that about 10% of Israel's Jewish population now lives in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, territory Israel captured in the 1967 war and which is not internationally recognized as part of Israel.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks so much for the insights. Really appreciate it.

MYRE: Sure thing, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre has covered Israel for many years. He's in Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.