A settlement watchdog group says Israel is moving ahead with new construction of hundreds of homes in an illegal East Jerusalem settlement that threatens to cut off parts of the city claimed by Palestinians from the West Bank.
The group, Peace Now, said the Israel Land Authority announced on its website on Sunday that it had opened up tenders for more than 1,200 new homes in Givat Hamatos in East Jerusalem.
Brian Reeves, a spokesman for Peace Now, said the move allows contractors to begin bidding on the tenders, a process that will conclude just days before US President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. Construction could then begin within months.
“This is a lethal blow to the prospects for peace,” Peace Now said in a statement, adding Israel was “taking advantage of the final weeks of the President Donald Trump’s administration in order to set facts on the ground that will be exceedingly hard to undo in order to achieve peace”.
Turned a blind eye
The move may test ties with the incoming administration of Biden, who is expected to take a firmer tack against the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements after four years of a more lenient policy under Trump, who has largely turned a blind eye to the construction.
The approval of the 1,200 homes is a further setback to dwindling hopes of an internationally-backed partition deal that would enable the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The Palestinian leadership says construction in the Givat Hamatos settlement would seal off the Palestinian city of Bethlehem and the southern West Bank from East Jerusalem, further cutting off access for Palestinians to that part of the city.
“This is a continuation of the current Israeli government policy in destroying the two-state solution,” said Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to travel to the region this week, where he is expected to visit an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank – a stop previous US secretaries of state have avoided.
Palestinian officials, who have severed ties with the Trump administration over its pro-Israel policies, have denounced Pompeo’s planned visit.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh tweeted on Friday that this was a “dangerous precedent” that legalises settlements.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem – areas Israel captured in the 1967 war – for their future state.
With nearly 500,000 settlers now living in the West Bank, and more than 220,000 others in East Jerusalem, the Palestinians say the chances of establishing their state are quickly dwindling.
Israel views the entire city of Jerusalem as its eternal, undivided capital.
Much of Jerusalem is already blocked off from the West Bank by a series of checkpoints and a separation barrier built by Israel.
Israel has previously moved forward on plans to build in E1, another sensitive area east of Jerusalem that critics say, with Givat Hamatos, would block East Jerusalem off entirely from the West Bank.
Emboldened under Trump
After four years of Trump, Israel faces a new reality under Biden, who will likely restore the previous US position that viewed settlements as illegitimate – in line with international law – and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
Under previous administrations, Israel held back on building plans in the most sensitive areas, including Givat Hamatos, amid opposition by both Washington and the international community, which saw such plans as dashing hopes for a contiguous Palestinian state.
But Israel has been emboldened under Trump, approving thousands of new settlement homes during his term, including in highly contested areas.
Many of those plans are expected to break ground after Biden assumes the presidency.
With the Trump administration in its final weeks in office, Israel may be aiming to push ahead on contentious projects before Biden’s term starts, a move that could start things off on the wrong foot with the new US president.