A British minister on Thursday harshly condemned Israel for its plans to expand construction in East Jerusalem and for conferring university status on a college in the West Bank city of Ariel, employing damning language rarely used by government officials.

While international outcries following Israeli announcements of construction beyond the Green Line are a common occurrence, UK Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt took the unusual step of mentioning the Geneva Conventions, likely implying that settlement expansion is considered a war crime under international law.

The move is being seen by some as an intensification of rhetoric in response to Israel’s increasingly aggressive avowals to broaden its settlement enterprise.

In his statement, Burt said he and Foreign Secretary William Hague last week expressed “condemnation and deep disappointment” at the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee’s approval of 1,500 housing units in Ramat Shlomo. They also denounced recently announced plans for additional construction in the Givat Hamatos and Gilo neighborhoods, which are beyond the Green Line.

“These are further profoundly provocative actions that run contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention,” Burt stated. “By taking these steps, despite the international community repeatedly raising our profound concerns, the Israeli government is damaging Israel’s international reputation.”

Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” This is the basis for the position of international bodies, such as the United Nations and the European Union, to consider Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line illegal under international law.

Violations of the 1949 Geneva Convention are considered war crimes under international law. Israel is a party to the convention and therefore bound by its obligations.

According to pro-Israel advocate Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister and expert on international law, Burt’s evoking of the Geneva Convention marks a “gradual ratcheting up” of criticism in light of Israel’s increasingly assertive settlement policy. While international human right activists have in the past quoted the convention to incriminate Israel, Western government officials have generally refrained from mentioning it in relation to Israeli settlements.

“At first the settlements were unhelpful, then they became an obstacle to peace; from there they went to being illegal, from there to being contrary to international law, and now they are violating the Geneva Conventions,” Cotler told The Times of Israel. “It seems that this signifies a calibrated indictment reciprocal to the increasing affirmations of the Israeli government’s settlement policy.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor called the word choice “disappointing.”

“The Palestinian interpretation of the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the West Bank and to settlements therein is highly controversial and stands in contradiction with a great number of legal opinions by leading experts,” Palmor said. “It is therefore disappointing to see that a [UK Foreign Office] minister should adopt the contested Palestinian position hook, line and sinker, thus adding controversy where it is already in excess.”

In trying to fend off such attacks, Israel usually refers to a clause in the convention that says regulations only apply to “High Contracting Parties” — in other words, signatory states. Since the West Bank and East Jerusalem were not within the recognized territory of any contracting party when Israel captured them, they are to be considered disputed territories rather than occupied, Jerusalem argues.

In May, the EU foreign ministers released a statement mentioning “the applicability of the fourth Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilians.” This passage seems to refer mostly to Israel’s obligation to safeguard Palestinians living under Israeli military control. On December 10, the EU issued a harshly worded rebuke of Israel’s plans to expand settlements in the West Bank but failed to mention the convention.

British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt (right) meets with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in January 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt in Jerusalem, January 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Burt, a Conservative, also called on the Israeli government to “urgently” reverse its decision to upgrade the Ariel University Center to a full-fledged university. “Ariel is beyond the Green Line in a settlement that is illegal according to international law. This decision will deepen the presence of the settlements in the Palestinian territories and will create another obstacle to peace,” he said.

The minister further said that the United Kingdom appreciates the Palestinian leadership’s “measured response” to Israel’s recent announcements and commended Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for publicly rejecting recent “inflammatory statements” by Hamas leaders.

Having received nonmember observer state status at the United Nations in late November, the Palestinians are said to be considering turning to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to denounce Israel for alleged war crimes relating to settlements.

However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior government ministers have repeatedly vowed to keep building despite all pressure.