Ramallah, occupied West Bank - Palestinian officials have slammed the latest Israeli authorisation to build more than 200 new settler houses in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as a "war crime" that serves to "destroy the prospects of two independent states living side by side in peace and security".
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said: "The latest approval of settlement construction, and the significant increase in Israeli settlement activity during 2016, should serve as a reminder to the international community of its responsibility to put an end to such crimes."
Israeli authorities have denied giving the green light to new construction. "Almost all of the permits are for upgrading existing structures," said a statement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's media adviser.
Anat Ben Nun, director of international relations for Peace Now, an Israeli settlement watchdog, said, however, that so far this year, "the vast majority of settlements units are new, not retroactively approved".
"This is a dangerous step given the current violence and security situation," Ben Nun told Al Jazeera. "The area is very sensitive and any approvals are risking to shake a very fragile reality."
READ MORE: Israel tears down seven Palestinian homes in 24 hours
A Palestinian armed with an axe attacked an Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank and was shot dead on Thursday, the Israeli army said, ending a three-week lull in deadly incidents.
An army statement did not specify whether the soldier was wounded in the attack, which occurred near the al-Arroub refugee camp between Hebron and Bethlehem.
The incident was the latest in a seven-month wave of violence. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed and at least 33 Israelis and foreign nationals have died.
Peace Now has recently warned that authorities plan to quadruple the number of settlement projects compared with the same period in 2015. The group said until March of this year, plans for 674 housing units were pushed forward - compared with 194 units in the same period last year.
In 2015, plans to build 1,665 new housing units were approved - more than a 1,000 of them initially built without government authorisation, but retroactively legalised, according to the group. This was much lower than 2014's figures, which showed that about 8,600 new housing units were promoted.
For almost two years, Israel said it would not advance new settlement building plans, but some observers say the informal construction freeze was never implemented on the ground.
"Even though the numbers approved in 2015 were substantially lower, it was still not a settlement freeze," Ben Nun said. "There were still many plans being approved. It was not a real freeze."
Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and settlement expert, also said he believes there was never a real construction freeze in 2015.
READ MORE: Palestinian father seeks justice for slain son
"The latest numbers indicate a resumption of intense settlement activity," he told Al Jazeera. "There was a lull at some point, but building never really stopped."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been pushing for a UN resolution to condemn settlement activity, and officials have begun circulating a draft to that effect.
"This increases the sense of urgency for a solution," Seidemann said. "A two-state solution depends on how many settlers can be moved over the border. That number is going up by 5,000 to 10,000 every year, which is huge."
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @DaliaHatuqa
Source: Al Jazeera