Israel’s security cabinet approved construction of the first new settlement in the occupied West Bank in two decades, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu negotiates with Washington on curbing settlement activity.
Thursday’s unanimous vote in favour of the new settlement in an area Israelis call Emek Shilo came after Netanyahu told reporters earlier: “I made a promise that we would establish a new settlement … We will keep it today.”
Palestinian officials swiftly condemned the move.
“Today’s announcement once again proves that Israel is more committed to appeasing its illegal settler population than to abiding by the requirements for stability and a just peace,” said Hanan Ashrawi, an executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
There was no immediate reaction from US President Donald Trump’s administration, which is said to be in discussions with Israel on limiting the construction of settlements on Palestinian land.
Such settlements, in territory that Israel captured in 1967, are deemed illegal by international law.
Netanyahu first promised the new settlement at Emek Shilo in February, shortly before Israeli settlers were removed from another West Bank settlement called Amona. Their houses were razed after Israel’s Supreme Court said they were built without government approval on privately owned Palestinian land.
Establishing a new settlement may be a way for Netanyahu to appease far-right members of his coalition government who are likely to object to any concessions to US demands for restraints on building.
Israeli political sources, however, said the new construction would actually take place within the boundaries of an existing settlement. The new community would then be declared its own settlement, a nuance that might be enough to stave off possible US opposition to the move.
Trump, who had been widely seen in Israel as sympathetic towards settlements, appeared to surprise Netanyahu during a White House visit last month when he urged him to “hold back on settlements for a little bit”.
The two then agreed that their aides would try to work out a compromise on how much Israel can build and where.
Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, this week wrapped up a second trip to the region aimed at reviving Middle East peace talks that collapsed in 2014.
A new settlement would be the first built in the West Bank since 1999. About 400,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, which is also home to 2.8 million Palestinians. Another 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem.
The UN Security Council passed a resolution in December 2016 denouncing settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal.
A UN-commissioned report concluded earlier this month that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, including the settlement regime in the West Bank, amount to apartheid. The study was removed from the UN’s website after pressure from the United States and Israel.
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