The US State Department on Friday condemned Israel’s decision to expand the boundary of an existing West Bank settlement bloc, saying it hinders attempts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon reportedly approved an expansion of the West Bank Etzion settlement bloc south of Jerusalem to include a compound Israelis hope to turn into a new settlement. He okayed construction that would allow the creation of a new settlement on the plot, which formerly housed a Christian-run hospital, in June, the daily Haaretz reported Wednesday.
The Defense Ministry added the compound to the jurisdiction of the Gush Etzion regional council, south of Jerusalem, in late December.
State Department John Kirby said Friday that “continued settlement activity and expansion raises honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions and will only make achieving a two-state solution much more difficult.” He added that the United States remains “deeply concerned” about the move, “which effectively creates a new settlement on 10 acres in the West Bank.”
The plot is located across from the al-Aroub refugee camp on Route 60, between the Etzion settlement bloc and Hebron. If populated, the outpost would help create an Israeli corridor stretching from Jerusalem to Hebron, which critics say would further complicate efforts to create a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank under a two-state peace deal.
The Etzion area directly south of Bethlehem is considered one of the largest settlement blocs in the West Bank, home to tens of thousands of Israelis spread over several communities.
The Palestinians claim the West Bank, along with East Jerusalem, as parts of their future state. They consider all Israeli construction there to be illegal — a position that is backed by the international community. Israel, however, considers West Bank settlements legal.
Israeli officials have repeatedly asserted that the government intends to hold on to the area under a future peace deal with the Palestinians, in exchange for land swaps.
Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014, in part over the issue of settlements.
The move came amid near-daily Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers that killed 21 people mostly in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming assaults. At least 134 Palestinians died by Israeli fire, including 93 said by Israel to be attackers. The rest were killed in clashes with troops. Israel says the bloodshed is fueled by a Palestinian campaign of incitement. Palestinians say it stems from frustration over lack of hope in obtaining statehood.
Speaking during a visit to the Hebron Hills in the southern West Bank in late September, Ya’alon said that “there is not, nor will there be, a freeze in [settlement] construction, given that our legitimacy to settle the land has come under attack.”
The property near al-Aroub is owned by Jerusalem City Council member Arieh King, who bought it three years ago and began refurbishing it with the intention of establishing a new settlement outpost there.
The purchase was funded by US millionaire and right-wing philanthropist Irving Moskowitz through a series of shell corporations and charitable organizations in 2008, according to Haaretz.
The property was previously owned by a Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania through a group called “The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.”
The church sold the site when Joan Davenport, the nun who managed the property, left Israel. “We decided to finish our mission in Israel because they told us in Bethlehem that there were enough local Christians and that they did not need us,” she said.
The site includes eight buildings, among them a large central structure and several smaller ones. Twenty years ago the Presbyterian church was turned into a hostel, but the business venture failed and the site was abandoned and left in ruins.
The compound was built by Thomas Lambie, an American missionary who worked in Ethiopia before coming to Palestine in 1947. He established a hospital for tuberculosis patients at the site, where he was buried after his death in 1954.
The compound has undergone repairs and is expected to house as many as 20 families. A new fence has also been built despite a stop-work injunction by the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank, which cited the lack of a building permit for the fence.
The nature of the site was kept a secret even from those working on it. A man who went by the name of Emanuel, who claimed to be Norwegian, dealt with the Palestinian workers in the compound.
Emanuel claimed he wanted to merely restore the church to its former state, Haaretz reported.
The Israel Defense Forces had been unaware of the site’s intended purpose when the refurbishment began, and security for the settlement-to-be was even handled by a private company.
Local Palestinians have protested the site’s renovation, placing Palestinian flags on the fence of the complex.
JTA contributed to this article.