AP / June 26, 2023
JERUSALEM – Israel’s far-right government on Monday approved plans to build over 5,000 new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Israeli media said, a move that threatened to worsen increasingly strained relations with the United States.
The decision defied growing U.S. criticism of Israel’s settlement policies. It also raised tensions with the Palestinians at a time of rising violence in the occupied territory.
Multiple Israeli media outlets said the Defense Ministry planning committee that oversees settlement construction approved some 5,700 new settlement homes. The units are at various stages of planning, and it was not immediately clear when construction would begin. COGAT, the defense body in charge of the planning committee, did not respond to requests for comment.
The international community, along with the Palestinians, considers settlement construction illegal or illegitimate and an obstacle to peace. Over 700,000 Israelis now live in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in 1967 and sought by the Palestinians for a future state.
“The Netanyahu government is moving forward with its aggression and open war against the Palestinian people,” said Wassel Abu Yousef, a Palestinian official in the West Bank. “We affirm that all settler colonialism in all the occupied Palestinian territories is illegitimate and illegal.”
Peace Now, an anti-settlement watchdog group, said Israel has now approved over 13,000 settlement housing units this year. That is nearly three times the number of homes approved in all of 2022 and marks the most approvals in any year since it began systematically tracking the planning procedures in 2012.
Israel’s government, which took office in late December, is dominated by religious and ultranationalist politicians with close ties to the settlement movement. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a firebrand settler leader, has been granted Cabinet-level authority over settlement policies and has vowed to double the settler population in the West Bank.
The Biden administration has been increasingly outspoken in its criticism of Israel’s settlement policies. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the settlements “an obstacle to the horizon of hope we seek” in a speech to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.
On Monday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the U.S. was “deeply troubled” by the reported decision to build more settlement homes. “The United States opposes such unilateral actions that make a two-state solution more difficult to achieve,” he said.
Despite the criticism, the U.S. has taken little action against Israel. In a sign of its displeasure, the White House has not yet invited Netanyahu for a visit — as is customary following Israeli elections.
And this week, the U.S. said it would not transfer funds to Israeli institutions for science and technology research projects in the West Bank. The decision restored a longstanding policy that had been canceled by the pro-settlement Trump administration.
Ahead of Monday’s vote, Israeli Cabinet Minister Issac Wasserlauf, a member of the far-right Jewish Power party, played down the disagreements with the U.S.
“I think the alliance with the U.S. will remain,” he told the Army Radio station. “There are disagreements, we knew how to deal with them in the past.”
Simcha Rothman, another far-right member of the governing coalition, accused the Biden administration of having a “pathological obsession” with the Israeli government.
Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israel’s 75-year history, has made settlement expansion a top priority.
Senior members have been pushing for increased construction and other measures to cement Israel’s control over the territory in response to a more than year-long wave of violence with the Palestinians.
Last week, four Israelis were killed by a pair of Palestinian gunmen who opened fire next to a Jewish settlement. Monday’s approvals included 1,000 homes announced by the government last week in Eli, the scene of the shooting.
Israel expanded its military activity in the West Bank in early 2022 in response to a series of deadly Palestinian attacks. Over 135 Palestinians have been killed in fighting in the West Bank and east Jerusalem this year. Roughly half of them were affiliated with militant groups, though Israel says that number is much higher. But Palestinian stone-throwers and people uninvolved in violence were also killed. Some 24 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks.
Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim all three territories for a future independent state.
Israel has annexed east Jerusalem and claims it as part of its capital — a claim that is not internationally recognized. It says the West Bank is disputed territory whose fate should be determined through negotiations, while Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Two years later, the Hamas militant group overran the territory.