Israel gives final OK to 1,800 West Bank settler homes

Israel gives final OK to 1,800 West Bank settler homes

Construction work is pictured on January 21, 2021 in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank
Construction work is pictured on January 21, 2021 in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank

JERUSALEM - Israel on Wednesday advanced plans for building more than 3,000 settler homes in the occupied West Bank, a move condemned by the Palestinians that came a day after the US forcefully criticised such construction.

The Civil Administration's high planning committee gave final approval to 1,800 homes and initial endorsement for another 1,344, a spokesman for the military body that oversees civilian matters in the Palestinian territories told AFP.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in a statement voiced "strong rejection" of the approvals, and said the US needed "to implement its pledge to reject settlements and unilateral (Israeli) measures."

About 475,000 Israeli Jews already live in settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law, on land Palestinians claim as part of their future state.

The approvals came a day after Washington criticised Israel for its policy of building settlements. President Joe Biden's administration said it "strongly" opposed new construction in the West Bank.

The policy stands in stark contrast to that of his predecessor Donald Trump, whose presidency endorsed Israel's activity on occupied Palestinian territory.

"We are deeply concerned about the Israeli government's plan to advance thousands of settlement units," State Department spokesman Ned Price had said on Tuesday, ahead of Israel's announcement on final and preliminary approvals.

Price stopped short of saying the matter would jeopardise relations with the Jewish state, a major US ally.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also raised the settlement approvals in a call with Israel's Defence Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday, a senior State Department official said.

- 'Falling asleep' -

The locations of the Jewish homes approved on Wednesday were spread across the West Bank, from the suburbs of Jerusalem to new neighbourhoods of settlements deep inside the territory.

Some are proposed but others have already been built and received retroactive approval.

Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and east Jerusalem has been a policy of every Israeli government since 1967, when it occupied these areas in the Six Day War. It later annexed east Jerusalem.

Israel's housing ministry had separately on Sunday published tenders to build 1,355 new homes in the West Bank.

While moving forward the plans for Israeli settler homes, the Civil Administration is also scheduled on Sunday to advance plans for the construction of 1,301 residences for Palestinians in Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank.

Critics say that move is an attempt to allay criticism from Israeli allies and the anger of left-wing partners in an unwieldy coalition government headed by right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

It is the first time that the Civil Administration, the military rulers of the West Bank, has approved settlement construction under Bennett's government.

He came to power in June as the head of an ideologically disparate eight-party coalition with members ranging from the Jewish religious far-right to Israel's Islamist party.

The former head of a settler lobby group, Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood.

He has ruled out formal peace talks with the Palestinian Authority during his tenure, saying he prefers to focus on economic improvements.

Israeli anti-occupation group Peace Now accused the government of "violating the status-quo" over the settlements, and charged proponents of the two-state solution in Bennett's coalition with "falling asleep on their shift."

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