In first since annexation suspended, Israel approves 2,100 new settlement homes

Plans for another 2,000 housing units to be approved Thursday; first construction beyond the Green Line to be okayed since February

A picture taken on October 13, 2020, shows the Har Gilo settlement in the West Bank, with the city of Jerusalem seen in the background. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
A picture taken on October 13, 2020, shows the Har Gilo settlement in the West Bank, with the city of Jerusalem seen in the background. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

A Defense Ministry body on Wednesday advanced plans to build 2,166 settlement homes in the West Bank, the first new construction approved beyond the Green Line in eight months. The approval was also the first since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s project to annex all the West Bank settlements was indefinitely suspended last month as part of the Israel-UAE peace deal.

The Civil Administration Higher Planning Committee gave final approval for 1,313 housing units, and okayed 853 homes for “deposit,” an earlier planning stage they must clear.

Of the 1,313 homes approved for final construction, 382 are in Beit El, 205 in Nokdim, 200 in Metzad, 157 in Telem, 140 in Talmon, 132 in Kfar Adumim, 84 in Shim’a, 11 in Ma’ale Efraim and 2 in Giv’on.

The Higher Planning Committee will convene again on Thursday to advance the construction of around 2,000 more homes.

Gush Etzion Regional Council Head Shlomo Ne’eman, who oversees several settlements set to benefit from the decision, hailed the approval, saying: “The mission of developing the communities in Judea and Samaria continues to be one of the key issues for the State of Israel and the entire nation in this era, and we are grateful for the right to be at the forefront here in Gush Etzion.”

The Palestinian Authority condemned the move as “madness.”

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesperson for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said that expanding settlements “eliminates any real opportunity for a just and comprehensive peace.”

Neighboring Jordan condemned what foreign ministry spokeswoman Daifalla Ali Alfayez described as an “unilateral and illegal” Israeli decision.

“Netanyahu is moving ahead at full steam toward solidifying the de facto annexation of the West Bank,” the Peace Now watchdog group said in a statement ahead of Wednesday’s decisions.

A spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the approval may “fuel instability” and hurt the chances for peace talks.

“We are concerned about the reports of Israel’s settlement advancements in the occupied West Bank and will continue to follow developments closely,” Stephane Dujarric said.

The approvals came less than a month after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements to normalize relations with Israel, which in return pledged to freeze its plans to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank — including all the settlements and the Jordan Valley.

A picture taken on October 12, 2020, shows the Har Gilo settlement in the West Bank, south of Jerusalem. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

US President Donald Trump sees the Gulf accords as part of his broader initiative for Middle East peace. The Israeli-Palestinian peace plan he unveiled in January gave US blessing to Israeli annexation of large chunks of the West Bank, including the settlements.

Israel agreed to delay those plans under its normalization deal with the UAE, something Emirati officials have cited in response to Arab and Muslim criticism.

The two Gulf countries were only the third and fourth Arab states to normalize relations with Israel, following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he sees others following.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk at the ceremony for the signing of the Abraham Accords, at the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020. (Avi Ohayon / GPO)

“This Israeli policy will lead the region to the edge of the abyss,” Abu Rudeineh said. “We call upon the international community to intervene immediately and with urgency to pressure the Netanyahu government to stop this settlement madness.”

The PA has long opposed the expansion of West Bank settlements, which it says endangers Palestinians’ aspirations to establish a viable and contiguous Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.

Peace Now noted that the plans were approved for submission by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party.

With Gantz’s participation, “Israel will be signaling to the world its bipartisan support for the end to the concept of a two-state solution and a Palestinian state,” it said.

The government has embarked on a new settlement push “instead of taking advantage of the agreements with the Gulf states and promoting peace with the Palestinians,” it added.

Among settlements to grow under the latest approvals is Har Gilo, in the southern West Bank, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. With a current population of about 1,600, Wednesday’s decision will give Har Gilo 560 new homes once the plans clear deposit.

The last time Israel promoted the construction of new homes beyond the Green Line was in February, when it lifted restrictions on the construction of the controversial Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem, saying that 3,000 homes would be built for Jewish residents there, in addition to 2,200 housing units for Jews in the nearby Har Homa neighborhood.

Netanyahu also announced plans to build in a strip of land in the West Bank East of Jerusalem called E1, effectively linking the capital to Ma’ale Adumim.

The plan was slammed at the time as “worrying” by the United Nations Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov.

Critics say building in the Givat Hamatos and Har Homa areas of the southeast of the capital will effectively cut Palestinian neighborhoods in the city from Bethlehem in the West Bank.

Most of the international community considers settlement construction a violation of international law. In November 2019, by contrast, the US State Department said it had concluded that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”

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