Israel on Tuesday approved 2,500 settlements in the occupied West Bank and vowed to build more. It was a sign right-wing politicians emboldened by US President Donald Trump were wasting no time.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said most of the new homes would be built in existing settlement blocks in the West Bank.
"We are building and we will continue building," Netanyahu said in a statement. Lieberman said, "We are returning to life as normal in Judea and Samaria," a reference to the Jewish names for the areas of the West Bank.
Israel's "Haaretz" newspaper reported that about 100 homes were approved in the settlement of Biet El, which has received funding from the family of US President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Trump controversially named Kushner as a senior advisor on Middle East and Israeli issues. Trump's pick as US ambassador to Israel, the hardline pro-settlement lawyer David Friedman, is the president of the US fundraising arm of Biet El, "Haaretz" reported last month.
Trump has signaled his administration may move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Trump's pro-Israel stance has emboldened hardliners in Israel, some of whom have suggested the Jewish state should annex parts of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and scrap the idea of a two-state solution.
New US administration, new stance
Netanyahu's right-wing government has welcomed Trump's positions, coming after tensions with former President Barack Obama's administration over settlement policy. Those tensions culminated in December when the US abstained on a UN Security Council vote condemning settlements.
The expansion of settlements and the possible moving of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has threatened to unleash a renewed Palestinian uprising and heightened Muslim resentment against Israel and the United States.
Tuesday's settlement announcement came after Israel approved on Sunday several hundred settlements in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to have the capital of their future state.
Netanyahu reportedly told a security meeting on Sunday that all restrictions on building settlements in East Jerusalem were being lifted, Israeli media reported. He also said construction would be expanded in settlement blocks in the West Bank, with a view to eventually bringing them under Israeli sovereignty.
The Palestinian's peace negotiation's department said in a statement on Twitter that the "deliberate escalation of Israel's illegal settlement enterprise constitutes a war crime."
"It is evident that Israel is exploiting the inauguration of the new American administration to escalate its violations and the prevention of any existence of a Palestinian state," said top Palestinian Liberation Organization official Hanan Ashrawi. He urged the international community to take punitive measures to stop settlement activities before Israel "completes the destruction of the territorial and demographic contiguity of the West Bank."
Hindrance to peace?
Most countries, including Germany, view settlement building on Palestinian land as a violation of international law and hindrance to peace. Israel argues most settlements would be included within Israel as part of any future peace deal in exchange for giving Palestinians land of equal quality and quantity.
There are are about 550,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem living amid some three million Palestinians, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. The settlements include those that Israel considers legal as well as at least 100 "wild cat" outposts.
Since the 1993 peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, the number of settlements has increased threefold, threatening the viability of a two-state solution. The settlements have turned the land of a future Palestinian state into a patchwork marked by Jewish-only roads, security barriers and military checkpoints.
cw/jm (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)