Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the West Bank settlement of Ariel Tuesday, telling students that the city would always remain in Israeli hands and that building in “Israel’s lands” would continue.

The visit to Ariel University was the prime minister’s first foray into the West Bank since kicking off his re-election campaign late last year, and his first to the university since it received a controversial upgrade.

Though less than a half-hour drive from Tel Aviv, the large settlement juts deep into the West Bank and international officials have condemned both the building in the area and the school’s promotion to a full university. Israeli officials, however, have insisted that the city will remain part of Israel in any future deal with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu told students that the world should think carefully when condemning Israel for building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank with the same language used to condemn murderous regimes elsewhere.

“History will judge harshly those who equate democratic Israel, which is establishing a university, and dictatorial regimes that slaughter their people and hold atomic weapons,” Netanyahu said. “We remain faithful to our homeland. We will continue to defend our citizens, develop our country and build in our land. With God’s help, we will build and we will succeed.”

A day earlier Netanyahu, delivered a similar message, telling Birthright participants that Israeli construction in East Jerusalem was small potatoes compared to the goings on in Damascus and Tehran.

“The great challenges that we face, the great danger to the world is not from Jews building in our ancestral capital in Jerusalem,” he said, speaking in English to young adults aboard the free Israel trip. “It’s from nuclear weapons in Iran… it’s chemical weapons in Syria falling into the wrong hands. That’s the danger we have to focus on.”

Israel recently came under harsh blowback, including from the US, after pushing forward with plans to build in East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements. The move was seen as a response to the Palestinians’ successful bid to gain nonmember state status from the United Nations.

In 2012, Israel made the then-Ariel University Center into a full-fledged university, drawing international and local criticism. British minister Alistair Burt castigated the move and the building, hinting that they amounted to war crimes.

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.”

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.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.