Israel advanced the construction of some 3,000 housing units in West Bank settlements on Wednesday, despite condemnation from within the government as well as by the US administration.
The Defense Ministry’s higher planning council, which authorizes West Bank construction, said 1,804 units were given the final approval for construction. Another 1,326 housing units were advanced to a later stage of the planning process.
Approval of the new construction is bound to raise friction with the United States and Europe, anger the Palestinians and test Israel’s fragile governing coalition, which consists of a combination of nationalists and centrists and dovish parties that oppose settlements.
The coalition Labor party tweeted shortly after the announcement: “Those who make policy declarations with international implications irresponsibly, without coordination and without preparation, and approve the construction of 3,000 housing units in Judea and Samaria — how can we put this — they are no [Yitzhak] Rabin.”
The comment was a jab at Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who has reportedly said he wishes to be “the new Rabin,” referring to the late Israeli premier who signed the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians.
Gantz’s Blue and White party quickly retorted on Twitter: “Those who call for conscientious objection should not preach on security and diplomatic responsibility.” The comment may have been referring to a 2010 radio interview in which current Labor leader Merav Michaeli said she didn’t think mothers should send their sons to the army (though she later walked back the remarks).
Gantz also recently declared six Palestinian human rights groups to be “terror organizations,” a move which was slammed by Michaeli, the government’s transportation minister, and other left-wing coalition members. The defense minister responded then by saying that Michaeli should “not get in the way of the war on terror.”
Meretz MK Mossi Raz told Army Radio Wednesday he hoped Gantz “will show responsibility and stop this destructive [settlement] building and the series of populist decisions that harm the government and the State of Israel.”
The newly approved settlement homes will be in Revava, Kedumim, Elon Moreh, Karnei Shomron, and communities in Gush Etzion and the Hebron Hills.
It is the first time settlement units have been approved during the Biden administration and by the current Israeli government. The plan was originally set to go up for approval two months ago but was stalled by the Civil Administration.
On Tuesday, the US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about Israel’s plans to advance new settlement homes, including many deep inside the West Bank.
“We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm, and damages the prospects for a two-state solution,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.
The Peace Now settlement watchdog denounced the government over the approvals. “A government that violates the commitment to the status quo and advances damaging construction in settlements is not a change government but a full-on right-wing government. The supporters of a two-state solution in the government have fallen asleep on duty,” the group said.
The group asserted that only 2,860 units had been advanced and not 3,130 as the Civil Administration announced. Shabtay Bendet from Peace Now said that the administration double-counts some units for certain bureaucratic reasons, but those reasons don’t reflect the physical number of units being advanced.
Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan praised the move, but added that it wasn’t enough: “We can’t say the nearly year-long [settlement build] freeze is over. The goal is one million Jews in Samaria and that is what we will reach. With any government, this is the most basic thing about human rights — the ability to grow and develop.”
The committee was also supposed to discuss 1,300 housing units for Palestinians who live in the West Bank’s Area C, which is under full Israeli control, outside the enclaves administered by a Palestinian autonomy government. The matter is expected to be discussed in a separate meeting on Sunday, a Civil Administration spokesperson told The Times of Israel.
Area C makes up some 60 percent of the West Bank and is fully under Israeli security and administrative control. Israel rarely approves Palestinian construction in Area C, with the overwhelming majority of requests being denied. This has resulted in rampant illegal building, which is in turn often demolished by Israel.
Between 2016 and 2018, just 21 of the 1,485 Palestinian applications for construction permits in Area C were approved by the Defense Ministry, or 0.81%.
In 2019, the Israeli security cabinet approved — in principle — a record 700 building permits for Palestinians in what was widely seen as an attempt to prevent the High Court of Justice from blocking further demolitions of Palestinian property as well as staving off international criticism of Israel for failing to allow Palestinian construction.
However, an investigation by The Times of Israel last year found that very few of those buildings permits had actually been issued.
Most of the international community considers settlement construction a violation of international law. The Trump administration in 2018 announced that it did not consider this to be the case, backing Israel, which rejects the position that the territories are occupied, saying they were captured from Jordan in a defensive war.
“These unilateral measures would destroy what remains of the two-state solution, are in defiance of [United Nations] Security Council resolutions and convey disdain for the efforts of the US administration,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ office said in a statement on Wednesday.
Wednesday’s approval of the construction comes a month after an Israeli government official told The Times of Israel that, despite the change of administration in Washington, Israel’s settlement building policies will remain largely unchanged.
The official said that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s new government will operate based on the understandings his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu reached with Trump, whose administration allowed Israel to continue building in settlements across the West Bank, so long as the construction did not expand beyond communities’ “existing footprints.”
This agreement allowed settlement building to skyrocket during the Trump era, with approved projects beyond the Green Line more than doubling compared to former United States president Barack Obama’s second term.
“The [Trump-era] understanding may well be adapted, but, as of now, it is still the only game in town,” the official said. “[US] President [Joe] Biden only spoke generally about his opposition to settlement building, and his team has not gotten into specifics with us.”
The official said that Bennett is aware of the issue’s sensitivity and acted to delay the convening of the Civil Administration’s planning committee, in order for it not to coincide with his visit to Washington in August.
At the same time, Bennett was clear in his meeting with Biden that his government would continue to allow for existing settlements to develop, the official said, adding that the prime minister had promised not to annex any West Bank territory.
The remarks appeared to diverge from comments made by a defense official in the Gantz-led Defense Ministry, who told The Times of Israel ahead of the Bennett-Biden meeting that Israel would seek to prioritize construction in the so-called blocs located closer to the Green Line, which Israel wishes to maintain in any future agreement with the Palestinians.
Agencies, Aaron Boxerman and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.