No construction freeze on West Bank settlements, says far-right Israeli minister

Demolition of Palestinian property continues under Netanyahu government

The Palestinian village of Baita south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, with Israeli security forces in the settlement outpost of Eviatar nearby. AFP
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A far-right ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday the country would not freeze the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

It comes a week after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Israel to halt construction.

“There will be no construction freeze,” said Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich's Religious Zionism party, referring to the West Bank.

Senior members of Mr Netanyahu's far-right coalition have sought to further expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which was captured by Israel in a 1967 war and where Palestinians have long aimed to establish a state.

Most world powers consider Israel's settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal.

But coalition agreements that led to the formation of Israel's new government last year include a commitment to “advance and develop settlement in all parts of the land of Israel”.

Mr Smotrich's statement comes as two high-profile Israeli plans to demolish Palestinian property stalled amid mounting international pressure on Mr Netanyahu's government, the most right-wing in Israel's history.

On Monday, Israel announced it was freezing plans to demolish an East Jerusalem building that is home to 100 people, following intense diplomatic pressure. Israel says the tower in Wadi Qaddum was built illegally.

The next day, Israel's Supreme Court approved another delay to the controversial demolition of Bedouin village Khan Al Ahmar in the West Bank, slated for demolition in 2018 after a ruling that it was built without the correct permits. Legal wrangling on its fate has so far delayed a decision eight times.

But demolitions are still happening. Last month, Israel demolished 39 Palestinian homes, structures and businesses in East Jerusalem, displacing more than 50 people, according to the UN.

On a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories last week, Mr Blinken repeated US calls for a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict between and called publicly for an end to settlement expansion.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas meet in the West Bank town of Ramallah, in January. AP

In private talks with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Blinken also asked Israel to stop Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and halt the demolition of Palestinian houses, three US and Arab sources confirmed to Reuters, stressing that the request was not expressed as a formal demand.

An expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory is viewed by the US and much of the international community as one of the main impediments to securing a two-state solution. An estimated 475,000 Jewish settlers now live in West Bank communities considered illegal under international law.

There has been a recent spike in violence in Palestine and Israel to levels not seen in years. In 2022, more than 150 Palestinians and 20 Israelis were killed in the West Bank and Israel, the UN said.

Updated: February 08, 2023, 10:45 AM