Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to build 3,500 new illegal settler homes in the strategically sensitive E1 region of the occupied West Bank.
The announcement on Tuesday came a week ahead of Israel’s general election – the third in less than 12 months – and is the latest in a string of promises to expand illegal Jewish settlements as the right-wing prime minister also faces a corruption trial.
“I have given instructions to immediately publish for deposit the plan to build 3,500 housing units in E-1,” Netanyahu said in a speech, describing the first phase of a planning process. “This had been delayed for six or seven years.”
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Netanyahu’s announcement “crossed all red lines” and he called on the international community to act.
“This is dangerous policy and we consider this an act of destroying the peace process,” Abu Rdainah said about Israeli settlement activities.
Israel froze a plan to build settlements in the E1 region since 2012 because of objections from the United States, European allies and other world powers who considered the project a threat to any future peace deal with the Palestinians.
Palestinians say it would split the West Bank in two and cut off its residents from access to occupied East Jerusalem, also territory Israel captured in the Six-Day War of 1967, and then later annexed in a move that was never recognised by the international community.
Palestinian leaders perceive East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
The planned E1 corridor will connect Israeli settlements, such as Ma’ale Adumim, to Jerusalem, ending any chance of territorial contiguity for Palestinians in the West Bank.
Some 600,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem among about 2.9 million Palestinians.
Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, codirector of Jahalin Solidarity, an NGO working to prevent the displacement of Palestinian Bedouins living in the E1 area, said the construction could mean their forced expulsion and constitute a “war crime”.
“If allowed to go ahead, this move will end the potential for a viable, sustainable Palestinian state, and is yet another example of how desperate Bibi [Netanyahu] is to buy votes so as to stay out of prison at the expense of our future,” she said.
Netanyahu, 70, is struggling to keep hold of power in a third vote after failing to secure a majority in two inconclusive elections last year. He will stand trial next month after being indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Last week, Netanyahu announced he was reviving a separate project, also frozen after international opposition, to build 3,000 new settler homes in the illegal Givat Hamatos settlement in the West Bank, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Settlement watchdog Peace Now said the Givat Hamatos area was “the last point enabling territorial continuity between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem,” saying the plan to build there was proof Netanyahu was “doing everything to prevent peace”.