The United States and European Union struck out at Israel Tuesday over its plans to appropriate about 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank, urging Jerusalem to nix the plan and saying it sends a “very troubling message” to those involved in negotiations for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called on Israel to take back the decision to put the 988 acres of land, near the settlement of G’vaot south of Jerusalem, under state control.
“We are deeply concerned about the declaration of a large area as ‘state land’ to be used for expanded settlement building,” Psaki said in a statement. “We have long made clear our opposition to continued settlement activity. We call on the government of Israel to reverse this decision.”
The White House also expressed concern over “reports that new settlement and East Jerusalem construction or planning announcements may be issued at any time, including for the sensitive area of Giv’at Hamatos in East Jerusalem.”
Stressing the Obama administration’s “opposition to any unilateral steps” by both Israel and the Palestinians, Psaki said the appropriation plans “are contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians, and it would send a very troubling message if they proceed.”
The plan has already come under harsh criticism from London, the UN, Egypt, human rights groups, Palestinians, and Israeli politicians and activists from the left and center of the political spectrum.
Washington had earlier called the move “counterproductive.”
On Tuesday, the EU’s spokesperson also criticized Israel’s decision to appropriate the land.
“We condemn the new appropriation of land in the West Bank, relating to plans for further settlement expansion, announced by the Israeli government on Sunday,” said the spokesperson in a statement. “At this delicate moment, any action that might undermine stability and the prospect of constructive negotiations following the cease-fire in Gaza should be avoided”.
In a press conference earlier Tuesday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said that Israel was confident in its decision, adding that “the official policy of the Israeli government is that the settlement blocs that will remain under Israeli sovereignty under any future peace agreement.”
The Etzion Bloc “reflects a broad consensus in Israeli society, and its clear to everyone that the Etzion Bloc settlements will be a part of Israel,” said the foreign minster, speaking at a press conference attended by visiting US Congressmen Ed Royce and Eliot Engel.
Earlier in the day, Finance Minister Yair Lapid criticized the decision over its poor timing, saying that it will likely cause diplomatic damage to Israel. “We are right after a military operation and face a sensitive international front. What was so urgent right now that we had to start a crisis with the US and the world”? he asked during his speech at the Calcalist Conference on Tuesday.
In recent days, the US has condemned the land annexation, calling it “counterproductive” to peace efforts and urging Israel to reverse its decision.
On Sunday, the IDF’s Civil Administration, the military government in the West Bank, announced that per instructions from Jerusalem, “4,000 dunams at (the settlement of) Gvaot is declared as state land,” and said concerned parties had 45 days to appeal the decision.
The move drew condemnation from various quarters, including from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who said Monday that he was “alarmed” by Israeli plans to expropriate 988 acres of Palestinian land in the Bethlehem area in the south of the occupied West Bank.
“The Secretary-General is alarmed by yesterday’s announcement by Israeli authorities to declare as so-called ‘state land’ nearly 1,000 acres of land in the Bethlehem area of the West Bank,” Ban’s spokesman said.
The UK also heavily criticized the move, urging Jerusalem to reverse its “ill-judged decision.”
The land is near the spot where three Israeli teens were abducted and murdered in June. The perpetrators, suspected Hamas operatives, have yet to be apprehended.
Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Major-General Yoav Mordechai said that the move comes “as the continuation of the political leadership’s directives given at the end of Operation Brother’s Keeper.”
The move was described as a response to the killing in June of three Israeli teenagers in the Etzion Bloc.
Israel accused Hamas of being behind the June 12 abduction and killing of Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gil-ad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19. The three were last seen at a hitchhiking post outside the settlement of Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem. The abduction sparked Operation Brother’s Keeper, a massive search to locate the teenagers and a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, with hundreds arrested. The bodies of the three teens were found near Hebron on June 30, and a number of Israeli hardliners set up unauthorized West Bank outposts in response.
The Israeli army declared that there was no claim of Palestinian ownership on the land in question, the Ynet news site reported.
Spencer Ho contributed to this report.