Israeli officials will announce Thursday the approval for 906 housing units in the West Bank, marking the first public announcement of settlement expansion by the Israeli government in more than a year.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon approved the construction permits after the Supreme Court ruled several buildings in the Beit El settlement to be illegal and consequently ordered their demolition, according to reports in Ynet and Haaretz.
The Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank will include in its announcement the approval of 296 units in Beit El, which rests several kilometers north of Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government.
The new units will be built on a soon-to-be-evacuated Border Police base. The construction is compensation for Beit El agreeing to withdraw from five buildings it previously held on private Palestinian territory.
Other construction will take place in Ma’aleh Adumin (112 new units) and Givat Zeev (381 new units). Both settlements are less than 10 kilometers from Jerusalem and considered within the major settlement blocs Israel will seek to keep in any future agreement with the Palestinians.
While all settlement sites are considered illegal under international law, the announcement also marks approval for sites that were previously considered illegal by Israeli law, including in the settlement of Psagot, which has 24 buildings currently standing deemed illegal that will now be retroactively approved.
The reported order was quickly condemned by critics as destructive to the peace process with Palestinians and damaging to Israel’s standing in the international community.
“The Netanyahu government is the government of the settlers,” Hagit Ofran, who heads the settlement watch program at the left-wing watchdog Peace Now, told The Times of Israel. “Approving the plans for those isolated settlements is a clear message that the government is not heading to peace but destroying the prospect of a two-state solution.”
The move is especially disconcerting, Ofran added, “during a time when the world is concerned with Israeli policies toward Palestinians in Area C and the government still goes ahead to approve a plan to promote the planning of settlements.”
She was referring to an Israeli plan to clear out the Palestinian village of Susya in an area of the southern West Bank under Israeli civilian control, despite domestic and international criticism.
Members of the settler movement celebrated the news. Miri Maoz-Ovadia, spokesperson for the Binyamin Regional Council in the central West Bank cited the settlements’ natural growth as a need for expansion.
“The Jewish population in Judea and Samaria has half a million people living here, families, children, second, third and fourth generation already,” she told The Times of Israel, using the biblical names for the West Bank. “Any freeze in building and development suffocates the people living here.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has received heat in recent weeks from settler leaders and members of the Jewish Home party over reported comments that “the settlements can no longer be developed and we must preserve that which exists,” which was taken to mean that he would no longer approve building outside settlement blocs.
Jewish Home Knesset members threatened Netanyahu and other leaders in Likud that they could stop supporting the ruling government coalition, of which they are a part, possibly undermining the already fragile 61-seat coalition.
In response, the Likud party released a statement denying any unofficial settlement slowdown or freeze. Thursday’s announcement comes three days after that statement was published.
Ya’alon’s office did not respond to a request for comment.