Israel has pressed forward on plans for more than 3,000 West Bank settlement homes, making 2020 one of the most prolific years for illegal settlement building, according to a watchdog group.
Thursday’s approvals, along with more than 2,000 new homes approved a day earlier by a defence ministry planning committee, are part of a building boom that has gained steam during the presidency of United States President Donald Trump, a staunch ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It also comes months after Israel promised to put on hold plans to annex parts of the West Bank in exchange for a US-brokered normalisation deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and later Bahrain.
The latest approvals raised the number of settlement homes to be advanced this year to more than 12,150, according to Peace Now, the settlement watchdog group.
It is by far the highest number of approvals since Trump took office in early 2017 and the highest since Peace Now began recording the figures in 2012.
“These approvals make 2020 the highest year on record in terms of units in settlement plans promoted since Peace Now began recording in 2012,” the watchdog said in a statement.
“The count so far is 12,159 units approved in 2020,” it added, noting the planning committee might hold another round of approvals before the end of the year.
“While de jure annexation may be suspended, the de facto annexation of settlement expansion is clearly continuing,” Peace Now said.
Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as part of a future independent state. They say the growing illegal Israeli settler population, approaching 500,000 in the West Bank, has made it increasingly difficult to achieve their dream of independence.
A string of US administrations, along with the rest of the international community, opposed Israeli settlement construction, which is not legal under international law. But Trump, surrounded by a team of advisers with close ties to the settler movement, has taken a different approach.
In contrast to its predecessors, the Trump administration has not criticised or condemned new settlement announcements, and in a landmark decision last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US does not consider settlements to be illegal.
The Palestinians and neighbouring Jordan on Wednesday condemned the recent approvals.
Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah said Israel had exploited improving relations in the Gulf and “blind support from the Trump administration”.
Trump sees the Gulf accords as part of his broader initiative for Middle East peace. But a controversial plan he unveiled in January gave US blessing to Israeli annexation of large areas of the West Bank, including the settlements.
Israel agreed to delay those plans under its normalisation deal with the UAE, something Emirati officials have cited in response to Arab and Muslim criticism.
The two Gulf countries were only the third and fourth Arab states to normalise relations with Israel, following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, and Netanyahu has said he sees others following.
The Gulf agreements broke with years of Arab League policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which made its resolution a precondition for normalising ties with Israel.
Excluding annexed East Jerusalem, more than 450,000 Israelis live in illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, alongside some 2.7 million Palestinians.