The Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing settlement construction advanced plans for over 2,700 West Bank homes Thursday, capping off a two-day session which saw the green-lighting of nearly 5,000 homes in total.
The approvals brought the annual total of housing units advanced to 12,159, in what the Peace Now settlement watchdog said was a record-breaking figure that beat out last year’s number by nearly 4,000.
The Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee typically meets four times a year. It had not convened in over seven months, in what settler leaders complained was a de-facto building freeze sanctioned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, against the backdrop of brewing normalization agreements — since signed — with the UAE and Bahrain.
Given the delay, Peace Now speculated that the Defense Ministry body might meet once again before the end of 2020, allowing for the possibility of the further padding of the record-breaking total of plan advancements.
During this week’s committee meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, plans for 4,948 settlement homes were advanced, with 2,688 given final approval for construction and 2,260 approved for an earlier planning stage known as “deposit.”
Several hundred of the approvals were for homes already constructed illegally, which will be retroactively regulated.
Among the approvals Thursday were 629 units in Eli, 357 in Geva Binyamin, 354 in Nili, 286 in Har Bracha, 211 in Yizhar — the latter known to be among the most extreme settlements, with police, troops and nearby Palestinians regularly attacked in its vicinity — and 178 in Einav. The vast majority of plans advanced are for settlements deep in the West Bank, outside the large blocs, that Israel would likely not hold onto as part of land swaps in any realistic future peace deal, Peace Now said.
The latest approvals came less than a month after the UAE and Bahrain signed agreements to normalize relations with Israel, which in return pledged to freeze its plans to annex swaths of the West Bank.
“While de jure annexation may be suspended, the de facto annexation of settlement expansion is clearly continuing,” Peace Now said.
The Palestinians and neighboring Jordan on Wednesday condemned the new approvals.
Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said Israel had exploited improving relations in the Gulf and “blind support from the Trump administration.”
In a Thursday statement, United Nations Special Envoy Nickolay Mladenov said the locations of the okayed plans were particularly troubling.
“Settlement construction is illegal under international law and is one of the major obstacles to peace,” he said. “This significant number and location of advancements is of great concern to all those who remain committed to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace,”
He warned that such moves undermine the possibility of a two-state solution, and urged Israel to “cease immediately all settlement-related activities.”
The Yesha umbrella council of settler mayors said the reconvening of the Defense Ministry body after over seven months was a result of its pressure campaign on the Netanyahu government.
“We are happy that our efforts have borne fruit and that building plans have been advanced. Construction in the [settlements] must not be used as a bargaining chip in peace agreements,” the group said.
The last time Israel promoted the construction of new homes beyond the Green Line was in late 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.
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.”