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Israel approves plans for thousands of new settlement units in the West Bank

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. (Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. (Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press)
By Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash Washington Post

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved building plans for 3,736 new units in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, in what activists say is part of a new wave of construction spurred by the Trump administration’s more accommodating stance.

The units will be built in numerous settlements, including some of the more contentious communities of Hebron, Migron and Beit El, a settlement on the outskirts of the de facto Palestinian capital, Ramallah, said an Israeli official who discussed the announcement on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Some of the units, which include homes, communal buildings and institutions, are slated for isolated communities that sit deep inside the territory Palestinians hope for a future state.

Most nations consider the settlements illegal. Israel disputes that.

“This year is looking to maybe even be a record year,” said Hagit Ofran, director of Settlement Watch for the left-wing Peace Now organization, referring to the number of new units approved. “It’s without doubt due to the fact that there have been changes in the White House.”

President Donald Trump has said that settlements are “not a good thing for peace,” but announcements of plans to build thousands of new units since his inauguration have been met with limited rebuke.

The settlements expanded under President Barack Obama, but his administration was more vocal in its opposition, calling them “illegitimate” and a major barrier to achieving peace and a two-state solution.

In December, Obama broke with U.S. custom by declining to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution labeling Israeli settlements as illegal.

Palestinians say that by building settlements, Israel seeks to block a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank.

“Israel is bent on entrenching the military occupation and its illegal settlement enterprise, further reaffirming its intentions of displacing Palestine and replacing it with ‘Greater Israel,’ ” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

She called on the “global community to hold Israel accountable for acting outside the law before it destroys the prospects of a viable Palestinian state, peace and stability indefinitely.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed this year that he will not remove a single Jewish settlement from the West Bank.

“There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel,” he said in a speech in August at the settlement of Barkan. “We are here to stay.”

About 400,000 Jews live in roughly 150 settlements in the West Bank, and an additional 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want to become the capital of a future state.

Israel approves such projects every few months but until recently focused on approving buildings in the major settlement blocs, which it hopes to keep as part of any eventual peace settlement. Tuesday’s plans include units in areas outside of the blocs.

“Things we never saw before are now happening,” Ofran said.

With Netanyahu’s approval, the next stage is for the civil administration, the Israeli military authority that governs the West Bank, to give technical approval to the building plans. In some cases, land will be zoned for new homes, and in others, existing structures built without the necessary permits will be legalized.

The approval process for construction in Israel’s settlements in the West Bank involves several stages. Some of the units announced Tuesday were given a final level of approval from the government; others are at their first stage.

In addition to the latest approval, plans for about 5,000 housing units have been advanced this year by the committee, and an additional 3,000 tenders have been issued.

“Those who say this is not a significant improvement are misleading the public,” the Israeli official said. “There is no one who works harder for settlements than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

But settler leaders were quick to condemn the announcement, saying it was a bluff that would lead nowhere.

“Announcements are nice, but bricks and mortar are what is needed,” said Oded Revivi, the foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, which represents Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which most Israelis refer to as Judea and Samaria.

“It’s time to massively accelerate building across Judea and Samaria to accommodate the huge demand for housing. The era of timidly tiptoeing around with tenders has ended,” he said.

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