Israel has issued tenders for 2,500 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, a watchdog said on Wednesday, on the eve of Joe Biden’s swearing-in as US president.
On Sunday, Israel approved 780 new settler homes in the West Bank ahead of March elections, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to face a fierce challenge from right-wing and pro-settler candidate Gideon Saar.
Peace Now said the government had now published tenders for a further 2,112 units in the occupied West Bank and 460 in occupied East Jerusalem, the eastern part of the city annexed by Israel but which the Palestinian Authority hopes to make the capital of a future state.
The watchdog accused the government of a “mad scramble to promote as much settlement activity as possible until the last minutes before the change of the administration in Washington”.
“By doing so, Netanyahu is signalling to the incoming president that he has no intention of giving the new chapter in US-Israel relations even one day of grace, nor serious thought to how to plausibly resolve our conflict with the Palestinians,” it said in a statement.
The spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned the decision to build new settlement units and said the Israeli government is racing against time to eliminate what remains of any possibility of a two-state solution.
“The continuation of Netanyahu’s government with its settlement policy and theft of Palestinian land – with the support and bias of the current US administration – will not bring security and stability,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh said in a statement.
All Jewish settlements in the West Bank are regarded as illegal under international law and by much of the international community.
But the Trump administration, breaking with decades of US policy, declared in late 2019 that Washington no longer considered settlements as being in breach of international law.
Biden has indicated that his administration will restore Washington’s pre-Trump policy of opposing settlement expansion.
But on Tuesday, his nominee for secretary of state said the incoming administration will not reverse Trump’s landmark recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“The only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution,” Antony Blinken said.
Beyond the change in Washington, DC, experts say Netanyahu also has domestic political reasons for pushing settlement expansion.
Electioneering is intensifying ahead of Israel’s March 23 polls, in which Netanyahu is expected to face a challenge from right-wing candidate Gideon Saar, a defector from the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party.
Saar, a prominent pro-settler voice, split with Likud late last year to challenge Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War and has increasingly expanded the size and number of settlements there, notably under Netanyahu’s leadership since 2009.
There are currently some 450,000 Jewish settlers living in the occupied West Bank amid an estimated 2.8 million Palestinians.
In occupied East Jerusalem, some 200,000 Jewish settlers live on Palestinian land in 12 settlements.
Governments worldwide largely see settlements as an obstacle to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.