Israel plans settlements spree against Palestinian, international will
LONDON - Israeli authorities are approving plans to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank, drawing criticism from Palestinians and possibly hindering a US plan to restart Middle East peace talks.
Settlement watchdog Peace Now reported that a committee overseeing settlement construction in the West Bank had approved 2,646 settler homes. Peace Now said the settlement push was “distancing us daily from the possibility of a two-state solution.”
“The government is sending a clear message to settlers: Build illegally and anywhere and we will find a solution for you,” it said in a statement.
A list provided by the NGO showed homes to be built in locations across the territory, including 146 in Nokdim, a southern West Bank settlement near Bethlehem where Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives.
An Israeli committee also approved permits for 31 settler homes in Hebron, the first such green light for the flashpoint West Bank city since 2002. Several hundred Israeli settlers live in the heart of Hebron under heavy military guard, among some 200,000 Palestinians.
The Hebron units are to be built on Shuhada Street, once an important market road leading to the holy site where the biblical patriarch Abraham is believed to be buried. The street is largely closed off to Palestinians.
The approvals came after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government pledged a major boost in signing off on settlement homes this year.
Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina condemned the settlement activity.
“Netanyahu defies the world and especially [US] President [Donald] Trump’s administration with his insistence on continuing settlements on the land of the state of Palestine,” he said in a statement carried by official news agency WAFA.
Trump is seeking to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which have been frozen since a US-led initiative collapsed in 2014.
Settlement building in the West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem is considered illegal under international law. It is a major obstacle to peace as the settlements are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.
The European Union condemned the step and demanded Israel reconsider its plans.
“The European Union has requested clarifications from Israeli authorities and conveyed the expectation that they reconsider these decisions, which are detrimental to ongoing efforts towards meaningful peace talks,” an EU statement said.
The bloc voiced particular concern about proposals to build settler homes in Hebron and about the start of groundwork in the East Jerusalem area of Givat Hamatos. Construction in Givat Hamatos would “severely jeopardise the contiguity and viability of a future Palestinian state,” the European Union said.
Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government leans heavily on settlers and their supporters to maintain its thin parliamentary majority.
Israeli officials said about 12,000 housing units will be given various stages of approval this year, four times the number in 2016.
Last month, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a supporter of settlements, enraged Palestinians when he told an Israeli TV interviewer that Israel was “only occupying 2% of the West Bank.” The Yesha Council, which represents settlers across the West Bank, welcomed the ambassador’s comments.
More than 60% of the West Bank is under near complete Israeli control, the United Nations said, and other areas of the territory are under Israeli security control. The portion of the West Bank that is in theory under both Palestinian civilian and security control are sometimes raided by Israeli soldiers.
Approximately 430,000 Israeli settlers live among 2.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Prominent members of Netanyahu’s coalition openly oppose the idea of a Palestinian state and advocate annexing most of the West Bank but controversy on the issue has also courted left-wing politicians.
The head of Israel’s main opposition Labour Party drew fire after saying that Israeli settlements could be retained in a future peace with the Palestinians. In an interview with Israeli commercial TV Channel Two, Avi Gabay said the concept of having to pull out of settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank as part of a peace treaty had become outdated.
“If you make peace, why do you need to evict (settlers)? I think that the terminology in which we are accustomed to speak here, by which if you make a peace treaty you evict people are not necessarily right,” he said in Hebrew.
“If you make a peace agreement, you can find solutions that don’t oblige you to dismantle (settlements),” he said. “You’re making peace!”
Gabay was elected in July to head Labour, which has historically supported an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
A day later, he elaborated on his comments. “I am in favour of reaching a diplomatic solution which is based on two states for two peoples, where their state is demilitarised,” he told Channel Two.