JERUSALEM (AP) — A settlement monitor said Wednesday that an Israeli committee approved about 3,000 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, a day after the Biden administration issued its strongest condemnation yet of the proposed construction.
Word of the approval came from Hagit Ofran from the anti-settlement group Peace Now. An Israeli security official who was not authorized to speak publicly also said the plan had been approved, but details were not immediately released by the Defense Ministry.
It was the biggest announcement of its kind since the Trump administration, which tolerated settlement growth and abandoned the decades-long U.S. position that the settlements were illegitimate. Israel embarked on an aggressive settlement spree during the Trump years, advancing plans for more than 12,000 settler homes in 2020 alone, according to Peace Now, the highest number since it started collecting data in 2012.
The ministry’s higher planning council, which authorizes West Bank construction, convened Wednesday to authorize the new housing units, with roughly half of them getting final approval before building starts. Israel is expected to discuss the approval of at least 1,300 Palestinian homes next week.
If confirmed, Wednesday's decision is bound to raise friction with the United States and Europe and anger the Palestinians. It also seemed poised to test Israel's fragile governing coalition of ultra-nationalists, centrists and dovish parties that oppose settlements after the 12-year rule of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"Now, everybody knows that this is not a government of change, but this is a government with the same policy as Netanyahu to build more settlements, to deepen the occupation and to take us away from the chances for peace,“ Ofran said.
Sabri Saidam, deputy secretary general of the Fatah Central Committee, turned his ire on the Biden administration and other countries protesting the plan, challenging the international community to “move from words to deeds and to express (their) views, by doing and not only condemning."
Saidam added: “The Israeli government is implementing the so-called Trump plan, and the Biden administration is almost absent."
On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said that it was “deeply concerned” about Israel's plans to advance new settlement homes, including many deep inside the West Bank. Secretary of State Antony Blinken protested the plan during a call with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, according to a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
At a press briefing the same day, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington: “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.”
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war — for their future state. The Palestinians view the settlements, which house some 700,000 Israelis, 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 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.
The Palestinians and rights groups say the 1,300 homes under discussion is a tiny fraction of the need. Palestinians require military permits to build in the 60% of the occupied West Bank that is under full Israeli control. Rights groups say permits are almost never granted, forcing many residents to build without authorization and risk demolition. 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 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, dovish members of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's diverse governing coalition, the EU and the U.S.
Kellman reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writers Joseph Krauss and Areej Hazboun contributed from Jerusalem. Matthew Lee contributed from Washington.