Israel has announced plans to build more residences for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, drawing immediate condemnation from Palestinians, peace activists and neighbouring Jordan.
The announcement on Sunday from the Ministry of Construction and Housing in right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government said tenders had been published for 1,355 homes in the occupied West Bank, which was seized by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.
The new settlement homes are to be built in seven settlements, according to the statement from the housing ministry, and add to the more than 2,000 settlement units that were announced last August.
Housing Minister Zeev Elkin, a member of the right-wing New Hope party, said in a statement “strengthening Jewish presence [in the West Bank] was essential to the Zionist vision”.
‘Major obstacle to peace’
The United Nations expressed its “grave concern” over Israel’s announcement, stressing that “all settlements are illegal.”
In a statement, UN envoy to the Middle East peace process Tor Wennesland expressed concern over the announcement of the construction of the new settlement units.
He also expressed his concern over “the continuation of Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem”.
“I repeat that all settlements are illegal under international law, remain a major obstacle to peace, and must stop immediately,” Wennesland said.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, speaking at a weekly cabinet meeting, called on other nations – especially the United States – to “confront” Israel over the “aggression” that settlement construction poses for the Palestinian people.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) will be keenly watching for a response from US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has said it opposes unilateral Israeli settlement construction as an obstacle to a two-state solution to the conflict.
On Friday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US was “concerned” about the housing plans. He called on Israel and the Palestinians to “refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tension and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution”.
About 475,000 Israeli Jews live in settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law.
The European Union on Monday called on Israel to halt the planned construction.
“Settlements are illegal under international law and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace between the parties,” a spokesperson for the EU’s executive Commission said in a statement.
The EU has consistently made clear that it will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders other than those agreed by both sides, the spokesperson added.
Jordan condemned the announcement as “a violation of international law”.
Jordanian foreign ministry spokesman Haitham Abu al-Ful blasted settlement construction and general “confiscation” of Palestinian land as “illegitimate”.
Anti-occupation group Peace Now said Sunday’s announcement proved that Bennett’s ideologically diverse coalition, which replaced former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pro-settlement government in June, was not “a government of change”.
“This government clearly continues Netanyahu’s policy of de facto annexation,” Peace Now said, calling on Bennett’s left-wing governing partners, the Labor and Meretz parties, to “wake up and demand the wild building in settlements cease immediately”.
Moshe Hellinger, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, told AFP news agency the right-wing factions in Bennett’s eight-party coalition “need to show their voters that they are defending their interests despite being in a coalition with the left”.
Preserving the coalition, which also includes an Islamist party, will require all sides to “swallow snakes”, he said.
Bennett, the former head of a settler lobby group, opposes Palestinian statehood.
He has ruled out formal peace talks with the PA during his tenure, saying he prefers to focus on economic improvements.
Shortly after the settlement announcement, the Israeli defence ministry said it was issuing an additional 9,000 permits for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank to work in the Israeli construction industry. On top of those, the goal is to add another 6,000 permits “shortly”, it said.
About 120,000 Palestinians currently have permits to work either in Israel or in settlements, generally earning far higher wages than equivalent work would pay in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem has continued under every Israeli government since 1967.
However, construction accelerated in the last few years under Netanyahu, with a significant boom during former President Donald Trump’s US administration, which Palestinians accused of egregious pro-Israel bias.