Israel approved the construction of almost 800 housing units in West Bank settlements on Sunday, three days before the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden, as promised last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Civil Administration said some 780 homes were okayed.
Settler leaders hailed the move, with Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan saying it was a “historic achievement” reached after years of work, while calling on the government to also recognize thousands of homes in illegal outposts built without the state’s approval.
Left-wing watchdog Peace Now slammed the action.
“By promoting hundreds of settlement units, Prime Minister Netanyahu is once again putting his personal political interests over those of the country,” it said in a statement.
“Not only will this settlement activity erode the possibility for a conflict-ending resolution with the Palestinians in the long-term, but in the short-term, it needlessly sets Israel on a collision course with the incoming Biden administration.”
Peace Now said that over 90 percent of the homes would be built deep inside the West Bank, which the Palestinians seek as the heartland of a future independent state, and over 200 homes would be located in unauthorized outposts that the government has decided to legalize.
A spokesman for the European Union also censured the decision, which he said was “contrary to international law and further undermines the prospects of a viable two-state solution.”
He added: “The EU has repeatedly called on Israel to end all settlement activity, and to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001. It remains the EU’s firm position that settlements are illegal under international law. The EU calls upon both parties to avoid unilateral steps that could undermine the two state-solution.”
Israel has stepped up settlement construction during President Donald Trump’s term. According to Peace Now, Israel approved or advanced construction of over 12,000 settlement homes in 2020, the highest number in a single year since it began recording statistics in 2012.
Netanyahu’s office had no comment. But last week, he said he would seek approvals for the construction projects. They include 100 homes in Tal Menashe, a settlement where an Israeli woman, Esther Horgen, was killed last month in an attack for which a Palestinian man has been charged.
“We’re here to stay. We’re continuing to build the Land of Israel!” Netanyahu wrote on Facebook then.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid had attacked the timing of the approvals, saying it was “an irresponsible step.”
“The Biden administration still hasn’t taken office and the government is already leading us to an unnecessary confrontation.”
Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, appeared to link the decision to the upcoming Knesset elections.
“Even during elections, the national interest needs to be maintained. A sane government doesn’t start an unnecessary battle with a new American president,” he said.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved moving forward with the settlement construction. He also approved a number of preliminary steps for Palestinian construction projects in the West Bank, his office said, in an apparent effort to offset blowback from the center-left.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, for a future independent state. They say the growing settler population, approaching some 500,000 people, makes it increasingly difficult to achieve their dream of independence.
A string of US administrations, along with the rest of the international community, opposed settlement construction. But Trump, surrounded by a team of advisers with close ties to the settler movement, took a different approach. His administration did not criticize Israeli settlement announcements, and in a landmark decision, announced in 2018 that it did not consider settlements to be illegal under international law.
As a result, Israel approved plans for over 27,000 settler homes during Trump’s four-year term, more than 2.5 times the number approved during the Obama administration’s second term, according to Peace Now.
Biden is expected to return to the traditional US position of opposing settlements, setting the stage for a possible clash with Netanyahu.