Israel on Thursday pressed forward on plans for more than 3,000 West Bank settlement homes, making 2020 one of the most prolific years for settlement building, according to a settlement watchdog group.
Thursday's approvals, along with more than 2,000 new homes approved a day earlier, are part of a building boom that has gained steam during the presidency of Donald Trump. It also comes months after Israel promised to put on hold plans to annex parts of the West Bank in exchange for a U.S.-brokered normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates.
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The move, welcomed by settler leaders, was heavily criticized by the Palestinians and the United Nations Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov.
The latest approvals raised the number of settlement homes to be advanced this year to more than 12,150, according to Peace Now. It is by far the highest number of approvals since Trump took office in early 2017 and the highest since Peace Now began recording the figures in 2012.
This includes a program to legalize five illegal outposts, including Mitzpe Dani, Harasha, Tapuach West and Pnei Kedem. Plans are also to advance the establishment of the controversial Samaria Gate industrial area, which has come under fire from environmental groups for effectively cutting an important wildlife corridor. It also includes the retroactive approval of an illegal motor park built in 2016 in the Jordan Valley.
The majority of the units approved, close to 2,000, were in the strategic area between the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Nablus. Another significant portion, 775, were in the settlements around Nablus. These include settlements that would effectively be enclaves in Palestinian territory under the Trump plan, in places like Yitzhar, Itamar, Alon Moreh and Bracha.
Peace Now views the new construction as “de facto annexation,” which threatens the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Instead of taking advantage of the agreements with the Gulf states and promoting peace with the Palestinians, (Netanyahu) is distorting Israel’s priorities and catering to a fringe minority for these settlement unit approvals that will continue to harm future prospects for peace,” it said in a statement.
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"It is unconceivable that a government formed to deal with the coronavirus approves the construction of settlements deep in the West Bank," it added, emphasizing one of the criticisms leveled at the fragile coalition currently governing Israel, formed by political rivals with the sole aim of dealing with the pandemic.
That perspective was echoed by Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, who said in a statement that the approval of these 5,000 units undermine "the prospect of achieving a viable two-state solution by systematically eroding the possibility of establishing a contiguous and independent Palestinian State living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel."
"I call on the authorities to cease immediately all settlement-related activities," he added.
Ahmad Majdalani, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said Netanyahu was working “systematically to end the two-state solution through settlement activities." He said he believed the wave of approvals this week was in response to concerns that Trump's challenger, Joe Biden, will likely be less accepting of settlement construction if elected.
“This year was the peak of his settlement activities because he wants to create as much facts on the ground as possible, fearing any change in the White House. Maybe that’s why just two weeks before American elections he pushed toward this decision,” he said.
Settler leaders applauded the decision. "We are grateful to the prime minister... for not putting the issue aside," said Shlomo Ne'eman, head of the local council of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. "As well as the international field, working in the Land of Israel is also important. Establishing, expanding and strengthening the settlements - these are the real steps towards Israeli and Jewish sovereignty in Judea and Samaria," he added, using the accepted Israeli name for the West Bank.
"We thank the prime minister, but insist that all construction should be released to meet our needs. Construction in Judea and Samaria should be like in the rest of the country," said Israel Ganz, head of the Binyamin Regional Council, the settler local authority for a large area north of Jerusalem that takes in the area between Ramallah and Nablus. "It should not be beholden to political decisions."
The Associated Press and Noa Landau contributed to this report.