Israel‘s defence minister has approved plans for the building of a new illegal settlement in the heart of the flashpoint city of Hebron, drawing sharp criticism from Palestinian officials.
The defence ministry said on Sunday that Naftali Bennett had instructed departments responsible for the occupied West Bank “to notify the Hebron municipality of planning a new Jewish neighbourhood in the wholesale market complex”, according to local media reports.
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The market area is on Hebron’s once-bustling Shuhada Street, the Old City’s main commercial artery. It has been shut down by the Israeli army since 1994, forcing many businesses to close.
Palestinians, who have long demanded that it be reopened, have been banned from accessing the street.
Hebron is holy to both Muslims and Jews and is a flashpoint for clashes between Palestinians and Israeli settlers, who are heavily guarded and usually protected by armed Israeli soldiers.
On Saturday, Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian teenager southwest of Hebron, with the army saying he was one of the three people throwing petrol bombs at a military vehicle.
The incident occurred near the entrance of a settlement, according to local media reports, where Palestinian medics were barred from entering.
Hebron Mayor Taysir Abu Sneineh warned that the “dangerous” decision by the defence ministry would lead to escalations in the “entire region”, Wafa news agency said.
He added that the Hebron municipality, under instructions from the Palestinian leadership, will exert “all its efforts” to protect Palestinian land and preserve the property and presence of its citizens.
Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, was divided into two areas and forms of control in 1997 – H1 and H2.
With some 200,000 Palestinians living in the area, H1 is under the control of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority. Some 33,000 Palestinians reside in H2, alongside several hundred Jewish settlers who live under Israeli civil law.
In the H2 area, Palestinians live under Israeli military control, with their freedom of movement heavily restricted due to the presence of checkpoints and the imposition of curfews.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the new project was a result of the United States’ decision last month to no longer consider Israeli settlements illegal.
The Bennett plan, he wrote on Twitter, “is the first tangible result of the US decision to legitimise colonisation”.
Israel’s decision to build a new illegal settlement in occupied Hebron is the first tangible result of the US decision to legitimize colonization;this cannot be taken out of the context annexation:Concrete measures,including sanctions against settlements are an Int.responsibility
— Dr. Saeb Erakat الدكتور صائب عريقات (@ErakatSaeb) December 1, 2019
Last week, thousands of Palestinians demonstrated across the West Bank against the recent US announcement, which upended 40 years of US policy and embraced a hardline Israeli view at the expense of the Palestinian quest for statehood.
Palestinians and the majority of the international community say the settlements undermine hopes for a two-state solution by gobbling up land sought by the Palestinians.
Sunday’s statement said the planned new building project would “double the number of Jewish residents in the city”.
The move also comes amid political turmoil in Israel after general elections in April and September ended in deadlock.
Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and allies like Bennett nor their opponents won enough parliamentary seats to form a viable coalition.
MPs now have until December 11 to find a solution or see parliament dissolved once again.
At a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu pledged 40 million shekels ($11.5m) for improved security to settlers.
“We are strengthening the security components in the communities in Judea and Samaria, of the Israeli citizens there,” he said.
According to several UN Security Council resolutions, the most recent in 2016, Israeli settlements are illegal under international law as they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population to the area it occupies.
Israel captured West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war and quickly began settling the newly conquered territory.
Today, more than 700,000 Israeli settlers, in addition to three million Palestinians, live in the two areas.