The US State Department issued a biting condemnation Wednesday of Israeli plans to expand a northern West Bank settlement in order to house residents living in homes built illegally in another settlement and which are slated for demolition.
“We strongly condemn the Israeli government’s recent decision to advance a plan that would create a significant new settlement deep in the West Bank,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The stern rebuke also cited the peace efforts of former president Shimon Peres, who died last week and whose funeral on Friday was attended by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. Toner’s statement was unusually harsh, effectively accusing Israel of attempting to hide the expansion.
“The retroactive authorization of nearby illegal outposts, or redrawing of local settlement boundaries, does not change the fact that this approval contradicts previous public statements by the Government of Israel that it had no intention of creating new settlements,” the statement read. “And this settlement’s location deep in the West Bank, far closer to Jordan than Israel, would link a string of outposts that effectively divide the West Bank and make the possibility of a viable Palestinian state more remote.”
The statement added: “Proceeding with this new settlement, which could include up to 300 units, would further damage the prospects for a two state solution.”
Israel approved the construction of nearly 100 new housing units in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh to compensate homeowners of the nearby outpost of Amona ahead of its court-ordered evacuation and demolition. The plan calls for two phases of construction, with a further 200 units to be approved after the first round is completed.
The US statement called the decision “deeply troubling…that Israel would take a decision so contrary to its long-term security interest in a peaceful resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians,” particularly as it came “in the wake of Israel and the US concluding an unprecedented agreement on military assistance designed to further strengthen Israel’s security.”
It added: “Furthermore, it is disheartening that while Israel and the world mourned the passing of President Shimon Peres, and leaders from the US and other nations prepared to honor one of the great champions of peace, plans were advanced that would seriously undermine the prospects for the two state solution that he so passionately supported.”
And it openly warned the move would “distance Israel from many of its partners.”
“Israelis must ultimately decide between expanding settlements and preserving the possibility of a peaceful two state solution. Since the recent Quartet report called on both sides to take affirmative steps to reverse current trends and advance the two-state solution on the ground, we have unfortunately seen just the opposite,” the statement said.
“Proceeding with this new settlement is another step towards cementing a one-state reality of perpetual occupation that is fundamentally inconsistent with Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. Such moves will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from many of its partners, and further call into question Israel’s commitment to achieving a negotiated peace.”
The plans were initially made public by the watchdog Peace Now.
“At a time when world leaders met to commemorate Shimon Peres and the way he advocated for peace, the Israeli government has created a new obstacle to a two-state solution,” a Peace Now spokeswoman said when reporting on the plans, which have since been confirmed by the government.
Peres, 93, died on Wednesday and was buried on Friday at a Jerusalem ceremony attended by many world leaders including Obama, who has tried to broker new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, with the last effort breaking down in 2014.
According to a Channel 2 report, the 98 new housing units in the settlement, located north of Ramallah, were approved by the Civil Administration’s Planning Authority on Wednesday, but went largely unnoticed due to Peres’s death earlier that day. The report said an additional 200 units were slated to be approved by the authority at a later date.
After a protracted legal battle, the Supreme Court in 2014 ordered the Israeli government to dismantle the unauthorized outpost of Amona by December 2016, ruling that many of the homes were built illegally on private Palestinian land which must be returned to its original owners.
Some Amona residents have rejected the relocation order, and have vowed not to comply with the court-ordered evacuation.
In an effort to sidestep the demolition, coalition Knesset members have locked horns over legislative proposals that sought to allocate alternative plots of land in the West Bank to the Palestinian owners, in addition to financial compensation amounting to 50 percent of the land’s value.
The bill was shelved in July after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit argued it was unconstitutional.
A similar law to recognize outposts was knocked down in its preliminary reading in the Knesset in 2012, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed it and threatened to fire any minister or deputy minister who voted in favor.
Established in 1997, Amona is the largest of about 100 unauthorized outposts — built without permission but generally tolerated by the government — that dot the West Bank. Amona became a symbol of settler defiance after a partial evacuation a decade ago sparked violent clashes between residents and security forces. The impending evacuation, ordered in 2014, could lead to another showdown.
The Supreme Court has on several occasions ordered Amona dismantled. However, the government has repeatedly put off razing the community, despite court-ordered deadlines. In 2006, Israeli troops demolished nine homes after clashes with some 5,000 settlers and their sympathizers, but several dozen trailers have remained.
Amona settlers have recently claimed they had bought some of the land the outpost sits on, but Palestinians from a nearby village listed as its owners have vehemently denied this. Israeli police officials have said the documents which purportedly proved the sale had taken place were likely forged.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.