Israel retroactively legalized some 800 homes in four settlements in the West Bank, the Interior Ministry confirmed Friday.
They included 377 homes in the Yakir settlement, 187 in Itamar and 94 in Shilo in the northern West Bank, as well as 97 more in Sansana in the south, the ministry said.
The decision was made two weeks ago, but was only reported in the Israeli press on Friday.
“These aren’t new constructions but rather homes built in settlements recognized by Israel in areas that until now didn’t have any urban planning,” said Hagit Ofran, a spokeswoman for Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now.
“Even if it doesn’t have the same impact that the announcement of new settlements would, it’s undeniably a gesture from (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu,” she said.
Yossi Dagan, head of the Yesha Council settlement advocacy group, expressed hope that the move would signal the beginning of a new wave of construction in areas beyond the Green Line.
“Unfortunately, it’s just a confirmation of existing buildings in older programs,” he said, according to the Ynet news site. “We look forward, like the vast majority of Israelis, to a construction boom and new settlements.”
Netanyahu has faced major criticism internationally for refusing to halt settlement expansion, and criticism from the right-wing at home for failing to build more.
The approval of the West Bank homes came at a time of heightened tensions in the region, touched off by Palestinian claims that Israel intended to break the fragile series of understandings governing the Temple Mount compound and the Al-Aqsa Mosque which it houses.
Muslims are allowed to pray in the compound, considered the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, while Jews and others are allowed to visit but not pray.
Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have repeatedly vowed that they have no intention of changing the status quo and allowing Jewish prayer, and on Saturday Netanyahu agreed to a Jordanian proposal to install cameras on the site to ensure transparency.
Since the beginning of the month, ten Israelis have been killed in a wave of Palestinian terror attacks and in ongoing clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces. More than 63 Palestinians have been killed, almost half of them attackers who were shot dead when carrying out attacks.
The recent violence in the West Bank, including the killing of a Jewish settler couple in front of their children near the Itamar settlement on October 1, has given ammunition to the Israeli pro-settlement lobby, some commentators have said. Netanyahu has said it would not be logical to expand settlements when he is seeking to maintain international support to tackle the terror surge.
Israel last announced new settlements in July when the government authorized 300 new homes to be built in Beit El in the central West Bank.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War in a move never recognized by the international community.
Hardline Jewish nationalists see the entire West Bank as part of Israel, which refers to the territory as Judea and Samaria, the names for the ancient biblical kingdoms located there.
In the latest effort to revive direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, New Zealand has drafted a UN resolution that reportedly calls for a freeze on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, as well as for Palestinians to abandon their bid to take legal action against Israel at the International Criminal Court.