Israel is continuing its campaign to expand its illegal settlement projects on Palestinian lands as it approved the building of 3,144 new housing units in the occupied West Bank.

An Israeli defence official said that a planning forum of Israel’s liaison office with the Palestinians gave preliminary approval for plans to build 1,344 housing units. The official said that the liaison office also gave its final go-ahead for projects to construct 1,800 homes.

The Israeli NGO Peace Now also confirmed the approvals.

The approvals come in defiance of the strongest criticism by US President Joe Biden’s administration to date of such projects.

Meanwhile, Palestinians have condemned the move as for them, even one settlement unit is one unit too much.

Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas said that the decision amounted to a “message of disdain for the efforts of the US administration”.

Abbas called on the international community to take a “decisive stance” on the Israeli decision.

Elsewhere, a spokesperson for Gaza-based group Hamas Hazem Qassem said that “approval affirms the expansionist behaviour of settlements which is inherent in all Zionist governments. We call on the Palestinian Authority and all international parties to take action and stop Israeli occupation from the illegal settlement expansion in our lands.”

The move marks the latest boost for Israel’s 50-year-old settlement enterprise on occupied lands the Palestinians seek for a state.

International law deems the settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as illegal. A majority of the international community also consider them to be unlawful but successive Israeli governments have expanded them. The Israeli policy makes an internationally-backed two-state solution – a state of Palestine alongside Israel – increasingly impossible.

Israel-US friction

Former US President Donald Trump and his administration had tolerated settlement growth and abandoned the decades-long US position that the settlements were illegitimate. During Trump’s time in office, Israel embarked on an aggressive settlement spree. Israeli NGO Peace Now says that Israeli occupiers advanced plans for more than 12,000 settler homes in 2020 alone, the highest number since it started collecting data in 2012.

Wednesday’s decision is likely to raise friction with Europe and the US.

Sources say that just yesterday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had protested against the proposed settlements during a phone call with Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz.

Earlier on Tuesday, the US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about Israel’s plans to advance new settlement homes, including many deep inside the West Bank.

Talking to reporters, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm and damages the prospects for a two-state solution.”

Meanwhile, former Palestinian official Sabri Saidam also criticised the Biden administration, saying it was “almost absent” as Israel pushes ahead with settlement construction.

Settlement approval will “deepen the occupation”

The settlement approval will also test Israel’s fragile governing coalition of ultra-nationalists, centrists, and dovish parties that oppose settlements.

Hagit Ofran of Peace Now said, “Now, everybody knows that this is not a government of change, but this is a government with the same policy as [former Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to build more settlements, to deepen the occupation and to take us away from the chances for peace.”

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and occupied East Jerusalem – areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war – for their future state. The Palestinians view the settlements, which house about 700,000 Israelis, as the main obstacle to peace.

Israel views the West Bank, home to more than 2.5 million Palestinians, as the biblical and historical heartland of the Jewish people.

What does the latest settlement approval entail?

Israel’s defence ministry’s higher planning council gave Wednesday’s approvals. The council is authorised to sanction West Bank construction.

The committee was also supposed to approve 1,300 housing units for Palestinians who live in areas of the West Bank that are under full Israeli control, outside the enclaves administered by the PA. The discussion has been moved to next week.

The Palestinians and rights groups say that the 1,300 homes under discussion meet a tiny fraction of the need. Meanwhile, Palestinians require military permits to build in the 60 per cent of the occupied West Bank that is under full Israeli control.

Rights groups say that permits are almost never granted, forcing many residents to build without authorisation and risk demolition.

On Sunday, Israel announced construction tenders for 1,355 housing units in the West Bank, the first move of its kind since Biden assumed office pledging to take a harder line on the settlements.

It also appeared to run contrary to the new Israeli coalition government’s own pledges to reduce tensions with the Palestinians.


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