Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Sunday stood by a statement from last week, confirming that the cabinet last year backed a plan allowing the Palestinian Authority to expand the city of Qalqilya in the West Bank, even as several ministers said they had no recollection of approving the proposal.
“There is no change in the information we put out last week,” a PMO spokesperson told The Times of Israel.
The renewed insistence that the plan was approved came as Netanyahu told the cabinet on Sunday that he planned to revisit the decision. Netanyahu also reporters accompanying him last week on a trip to Greece that significantly expanding Qalqilya was impossible, since there was no viable area into which it could expand, Army Radio reported Sunday.
The plan, first reported by Channel 2 news on Wednesday, would see 14,000 new apartments built on 2,500 dunams (617 acres) in Israeli-controlled Area C surrounding the city and would potentially double the city’s population from 50,000 to 110,000.
Under the 1995 Oslo Accords, administration of the West Bank was divided into three categories: Area A under full Palestinian control, Area B under joint Israeli-Palestinian control, and Area C under full Israeli control.
Responding to the report, and fierce opposition voiced by settler leaders, the Prime Minister’s Office said last Wednesday that the proposal was “presented by the defense minister last year and approved by the cabinet.” Since that time, it also noted, “over 10,000 homes have been approved for planning and construction in the Jewish communities.”
But on Sunday morning, after several right-wing ministers denounced the scheme and claimed it had not been reviewed properly by the cabinet, Netanyahu reportedly told government ministers that he too does not remember the 2016 decision and would order a new cabinet discussion of the planned expansion.
Responding to the report, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the settlement-supporting Jewish Home party, lauded the apparent new decision, tweeting that “in light of the Palestinian incitement [to commit terror attacks] we should not give them a prize of 14,000 homes along Route 6. I hope that this time everyone will join us in our position.”
Qalqilya is mostly surrounded by Israel’s security barrier and lies opposite the country’s central region only a few kilometers from Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv. The trans-Israel highway, Route 6, passes right next to the city.
Ministers Gilad Erdan and Yisrael Katz later denied that the cabinet had ever voted on the plan.
“I don’t understand who gave the Civil Administration the authority to approve such a large-scale building plan,” Erdan told Army Radio.
“The Qalqilya plan was never presented. I never approved it or even voted for it,” Katz tweeted.
The PMO spokesman, however, refused to confirm that Netanyahu would revisit the cabinet debate.
On Sunday night, Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council that oversees settlements in the northern West Bank, led a protest on the outskirts of Qalqilya, calling on the government to cancel the decision.
“We expect this government to continue to keep to its commitments and to strengthen the settlements and, as a result, all of Israel,” Dagan said, slamming what he called a “unacceptable” lull in settlement building.
Jacob Magid and Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.