The UN’s Middle East envoy says he is “very concerned” by Israel’s decision to advance construction in an illegal Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem that would make establishing a contiguous Palestinian state even harder, reiterating that “settlement construction is illegal under international law”.
The move also risks angering the incoming US administration led by President-elect Joe Biden, who has opposed settlement expansion and hopes to revive negotiations over a two-state solution.
On Sunday, the Israel Land Authority announced on its website that it had opened up tenders for more than 1,200 new structures in the settlement of Givat Hamatos, according to the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now.
“If built, it would further consolidate a ring of settlements between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank,” Nickolay Mladenov, the UN envoy to the Middle East peace process, said in a statement.
“It would significantly damage prospects for a future contiguous Palestinian State and for achieving a negotiated two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states. Settlement construction is illegal under international law and I call on the authorities to reverse this step.”
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 Biden’s inauguration in January. Construction could then begin within months.
‘Destroying the two-state solution’
The Palestinian Authority and the European Union’s foreign policy chief have also criticised Israel’s move.
The Palestinian leadership seeks a future independent state that includes East Jerusalem and the West Bank, territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, and views the settlements as a major obstacle to peace.
“This is a continuation of the current Israeli government policy in destroying the two-state solution,” Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said on Sunday.
With nearly 500,000 settlers now living in the West Bank, and more than 220,000 more in occupied East Jerusalem, the Palestinian leadership says the chances of establishing their state are quickly dwindling.
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.
Israel has long dismissed international criticism of settlement activity, but the decision to move ahead with construction at Givat Hamatos could harm relations with Biden, who has promised to take a more even-handed approach to the conflict.
President Donald Trump has given unprecedented support to Israel, including abandoning of the decades-old US position that considered the settlements illegitimate.
Israel has approved thousands of new settlement homes during Trump’s term, including in highly contested areas.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to visit a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank later this week in a stunning departure from his predecessors, who frequently criticised settlement construction.
Palestinian officials, who have severed ties with the Trump administration over its pro-Israel policies, have denounced Pompeo’s planned visit.