Palestinian lands seized in West Bank as Biden kicks off Middle East trip in Israel
The Israeli army began confiscating 1,480 dunams of lands belonging to Palestinians north of the occupied West Bank on Wednesday as US President Joe Biden touched down in Israel to kick off his first trip to the Middle East since taking office.
Upon disembarking from US Air Force One, which arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Lydd (Lod) at around 12:30 GMT, Biden said that while he believed in the two-state solution between the Israeli and the Palestinians, he did not think it was likely happen in the near future.
'They used Biden's visit where all eyes are directed to at the moment to launch this settlement project'
- Bashar Karyouti, Palestinian activist
Biden, who was welcomed by Israel's caretaker PM, Yair Lapid, former prime ministers Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog, will spend two days in Israel before briefly spending Friday morning in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he will meet Palestinian leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas.
He will then fly to Saudi Arabia to meet Gulf officials, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
As Israeli and American media fixed their cameras on Biden's arrival, Israeli army bulldozers began plowing lands belonging to four Palestinian villages - Jaloud, Qaryut, Turmusaya and al-Mughayer - between Ramallah and Nablus.
The lands had been seized by the army after appeals from affected residents, who grew olives and almonds there, were rejected. The area was declared a security zone by the army to secure adjacent Israeli settlements and outposts, seen as illegal under international law, according to Palestinian activists documenting settlement expansion on the ground.
"There are no media to document settler violations here at the moment," Bashar Karyouti, head of the settlement monitoring committe in south Nablus, told Middle East Eye.
"They used Biden's visit where all eyes are directed at the moment to launch this settlement project, which is part of a larger plan to connect Israeli settlements and cut off the West Bank's north from its south," he added.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which house more than 600,000 settlers, are viewed by Palestinians as a major obstacle to the two-state solution and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Speaking at the arrival ceremony, Biden said he still views the two-state solution as the best possible outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but did not expect it to be achieved soon.
"We'll discuss my continued support, even though I know it's not in the near term, for a two-state solution, which remains the best way for equal measures of freedom and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians," Biden said.
Both Herzog and Lapid also spoke briefly at the arrival ceremony.
"As Joseph, son of Jacob, who sought out his brothers here, Mr President, you are truly amongst family... Like the biblical Joseph, you are both visionary and a leader," said Herzog at the welcoming ceremony.
"This trip is your journey of peace from Israel to Saudi Arabia, from the Holy Land to the Hejaz. I hope and pray it will help advance a regional vision of prosperity, integration, peace and security for our entire region," the president added.
'You said that you don't have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, and you were right. And in your case, a great Zionist'
- Yair Lapid, caretaker prime minister
Lapid hailed Biden as a "great Zionist" and one "of the best friends Israel has ever known".
"You once defined yourself as a Zionist. You said that you don't have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, and you were right. And in your case, a great Zionist," Lapid said.
The 79-year-old president will then be briefed by Israel’s military on the US-backed Iron Dome anti-missile defence system and the new Iron Beam anti-drone laser system.
Israel has said it will raise 1,000 flags to welcome Biden in Jerusalem, where he will pay respects at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to Holocaust victims during the Second World War.
'This is apartheid'
Ahead of his arrival, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem launched a campaign seeking to turn Biden's attention to the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The group put up billboards and digital screens in the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, stating: “Mr. President, this is apartheid”.
"Without constant backing by the US, Israel would not have been able to politically, geographically and demographically re-engineer the area under its control; to impose military rule over millions of subjects and deny them rights for 55 years; to annex East Jerusalem to its sovereign territory; or to systematically discriminate against its Palestinian citizens," B’Tselem said in a statement released on Wednesday.
"The US must acknowledge that the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is governed by an apartheid regime, and change its attitude to Israel accordingly," said the group's executive director, Hagai El-Ad.
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, made the controversial decision to unilaterally recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv in May 2018.
Palestinians view occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and view the US embassy move as evidence Washington supports Israel's de facto annexation of the city.
'The US must acknowledge that the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is governed by an apartheid regime'
- Hagai El-Ad, B'Tselem
Biden has not reversed Trump’s decision, and will press ahead with plans to build a new US diplomatic compound on land that was confiscated from Palestinians using the 1950 Israeli Absentees’ Property Law, as archives revealed earlier this week.
Lapid and Biden released a joint statement on Wednesday morning announcing the start of a series of strategic cooperations - in epidemics response, climate change, artificial intelligence - that will be signed during the visit.
Israel will become the fourth country, after the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan, to secure cooperation with the US in these areas, according to the statement.
"The joint declaration places Israel at the forefront of global innovation and establishes its position as a leading technological power," said Lapid.
Palestine visit amid tensions
On Thursday, the president will hold a joint press conference with Lapid, who took charge last month following the collapse of Naftali Bennett’s government. He will also meet former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Biden will travel to the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem on Friday for a brief stop to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The meeting comes amid heightened tensions with Israel following the murder of veteran Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on 11 May, who was killed while covering an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.
Several investigations by Middle East Eye, The Washington Post and The New York Times, as well as international bodies and the United Nations, concluded that Israeli forces had likely killed Abu Akleh, who was also a US citizen.
Her family wrote a letter to Biden, accusing him of “betrayal” and “failing to meet the bare minimum expectation held by a grieving family”. They have demanded to meet the president during his trip - a request the White House has not commented on.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken "invited the family to the United States to be able to sit down and engage with him directly", Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen's niece, confirmed she had spoken to Blinken.
"We got a call a few hours ago, around noon-time and we reiterated our demands and our request to meet the president on his arrival" in Jerusalem, she told AFP.
She said the family voiced its "disappointment" with Washington's 4 July statement on Abu Akleh's killing that appeared to clear Israeli forces of intentional wrongdoing.
Blinken gave no indication as to whether the family would meet a top US official while Biden's delegation was in Jerusalem, Lina Abu Akleh said.
'Steps toward normalisation'
The trip will culminate on Friday afternoon with a visit to Saudi Arabia's Jeddah to attend a summit with Gulf countries, in which Biden will push for increased oil production in an attempt to control spiralling fuel costs and inflation in the US.
Writing in The Washington Post, the newspaper Khashoggi wrote for before he was murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018, the president claimed that his administration had reversed the "blank-check" policy of Trump.
He cited his administration's release of an intelligence report on Khashoggi's murder and his decision to impose sanctions on some of those involved in the killing.
However, he made no reference to Mohammed Bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler, who was named in the intelligence report as having approved the killing of Khashoggi, something the crown prince has long denied.
Biden will become the first president taking a flight from Israel to the coastal city of Jeddah on Friday.
"That travel will also be a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalisation between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand," he wrote.
Israel hopes Biden's visit will help kickstart the process of normalising ties with Saudi Arabia. Although Riyadh does not officially recognise Israel, ties between the two countries have been warming in recent years and diplomacy has frequently been conducted in secret.