Israel has given initial approval to advance construction of 863 housing units in Palestinian villages in Area C of the West Bank for the first time in years, in a move led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to also push through plans for more than 2,000 settlement homes.

An Israeli official said the Wednesday announcement on both parts of the plan was meant to legitimize settlement expansion, preparing for opposition by left-wing coalition partners. It is also seen by government officials as a "calculated risk" vis-à-vis the Biden administration.

The Meretz party, in a letter to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, called the plan to build more homes in settlements "a dangerous move that may further entrench the conflict and present a roadblock to the possibility of presenting a sustainable, permanent agreement with the Palestinians."  

A political source said that the U.S. administration "will express opposition to this move, but everyone wants this impossible coalition in Israel to hold out... It was clear for Bennett he would not have been able to advance this move after his meeting with [U.S. President Joe] Biden at the end of the month, so as not to damage their relations, and that's why he had to announce it as early as he did."

The approval of the new housing plans by Defense Minister Benny Gantz is seen as part of a larger move by the Israeli government, trying to strengthen the standing of the Palestinian Authority. It joins a recent decision by Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to increase the number of permits granted to Palestinian laborers to work in Israel and in West Bank settlements.

The plans for new housing in five West Bank villages in Area C will be considered next week by the top planning council at Israel's Civil Administration in the West Bank prior to their being filed for public comment. The villages involved are Al-Ma'asara (150 units), Bir al-Basha (270), Al-Masqufa (233), Khirbet 'Aaba (160) and Khirbet Zakariya (50).

Area C is the portion of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control rather than at least the partial control of the Palestinian Authority.

Area C represents 60 percent of the territory of the West Bank, but does not include the major Palestinian cities there. According to data reported by Haaretz that was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, between 2016 and 2018 the Israeli Civil Administration approved only 21 building permit requests by Palestinians for construction in Area C. During that same period, 2,147 demolition orders were issued against Palestinian property.

This is the first large-scale plan promoted by Israel for Palestinian construction in Area C. In 2017 a plan for 5,000 housing units around the city of Qalqilya, in the northern West Bank, was filed for public comments, but hasn’t been promoted further since then. 

In 2019 the cabinet gave its approval for 700 housing units for Palestinians, but according to Peace Now, eventually only six of them were given final approval.

Settlement homes

The planning council is also expected to consider next week plans for 1,351 housing units in Israeli settlements in the West Bank before filing them for public comment, and approve 908 more units, alongside the plans for the Palestinian villages.

The settlement housing units expected to get final approval include 58 in Beit El, 285 in Har Bracha and 105 in Alon Shvut.

Next week’s meeting will be the planning council’s first in seven months, and the first since Prime Minister Naftali Bennett assumed office. The Yesha Council of settlements has been lobbying intensively over the past few months to convene the council.

A source close to Prime Minister Bennett said: "Bennett is a right-winger. His opinion on the continuation of construction in the settlements in clear. This isn't any dramatic plan to annex the West Bank, but a minor move to improve quality of life in the settlements."

In the current Israeli government, the status quo dictates decisions on controversial issues, the source explained. "In this sense, this doesn't deviate from the existing policy."

A source familiar with the decision said the settlers are likely to criticize Bennett for the move. "Unlike how it may seem, this move isn't going to go down well with the settlers," the source said. "It's [only] about 2,000 housing units... It's been almost 10 months that no construction plans in the settlements were approved at all. That's now what they expected from Bennett."

Last month, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr visited Israel and the West Bank to discuss the latter’s financial crisis. Officials who met with him said he voiced the Biden administration’s concern about the situation and urged Israel to take steps to increase the Palestinian Authority’s cash flow.

In a statement released after the visit, the State Department said Washington sought “to advance equal measures of freedom, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” and that Amr’s visit “successfully advanced the goal of deepening understanding with Israelis and Palestinians in this regard.” It added that the topics discussed included economic development, energy and water.