Planning committee meets to okay 2,800 settlement homes, despite US condemnation

Defense Ministry body set to authorize housing units a day after Washington said it was ‘deeply concerned’ by developments

Construction work for new housing in the settlement of Modi'in Illit. January 11, 2021. (Flash90)
Construction work for new housing in the settlement of Modi'in Illit. January 11, 2021. (Flash90)

A committee convened Wednesday to approve 2,800 new settler homes in the West Bank, a day after the Biden administration issued its strongest condemnation yet of Israeli settlement construction.

The Defense Ministry’s higher planning council, which authorizes West Bank construction, met to authorize the housing units, with more than half of them set to get the final approval needed ahead of building starts.

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, a combination of ultra-nationalists, centrists and dovish parties that oppose settlements.

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.

Last week, after the High Planning Subcommittee published its agenda for its upcoming session, the United States Embassy in Jerusalem’s chargé d’affaires Michael Ratney called Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s senior foreign policy adviser Shimrit Meir to voice his opposition, an Israeli official confirmed to The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The two had a “difficult” conversation, the Axios news site reported, with Ratney taking particular issue over the fact that many of the projects are located deep in the West Bank, further complicating US efforts to promote a two-state solution.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — areas Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War — for their future state. The Palestinians view the settlements and Jewish East Jerusalem neighborhoods, where some 700,000 Israelis live, as the main obstacle to peace, and most of the international community considers them illegal.

Israel views the West Bank, home to more than 2.5 million Palestinians, as the biblical and historical heartland of the Jewish people.

The committee was also supposed to approve 1,600 housing units for Palestinians who live in areas of the West Bank that are under full Israeli control, outside the enclaves administered by a Palestinian autonomy government.

Palestinians and rights groups say those homes are a small fraction of demand.

On Sunday, Israel announced construction tenders for 1,355 housing units in the West Bank, the first move of its kind since US President Joe Biden assumed office, pledging to take a harder line on the settlements. It also appeared to run contrary to the new Israeli coalition government’s own vows to reduce tensions with the Palestinians.

The move drew condemnation from the Palestinians, left-wing members of Bennett’s diverse governing coalition, the EU and the US.

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