Israel to accelerate settlement construction in occupied West Bank

New rules pave the way for thousands of Israeli housing units

The Israeli settlement of Halamish behind a Palestinian flag raised for the funeral of Mohammed Haitham Al Tamimi, a three-year-old Palestinian boy shot by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank. AFP
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Israel's government on Sunday approved legislation to speed up the construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, handing more power to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich over one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Settlement construction no longer has to be approved at a political level, Israel’s public broadcaster Kan reported, changing from the current system which has been in place for more than 25 years.

Under the new system, proposals for settlement construction can now be submitted to Israel's Supreme Planning Council without prior political approval, with political intervention cut from four stages to two.

This decision will lead to further harmful construction in the settlements, in clear violation of international law
Israeli campaign group Peace Now

Settlements expert Dror Etkes told The National that while the news is unwelcome, it comes merely as an extension of long-term Israeli policy.

“Israel was until today an apartheid state, and will be tomorrow and the day after tomorrow an apartheid state, just with a few more settlers,” he said.

Mr Smotrich – leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, a coalition partner in Mr Netanyahu's government – will now wield more influence in the process and the minister, who has come under fire for anti-Palestinian remarks, will have authority over construction planning.

The decision comes on the same day as Barbara Leaf, a senior White House official, arrived in Israel.

The US is opposed to more settlements, although it is often criticised for not taking tangible action to prevent Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East, from developing illegal outposts.

The cabinet's announcement comes a week before Israel’s planning committee for the West Bank is set to meet to consider advancing plans for thousands of new homes in Israeli settlements.

Almost 5,000 new housing units are expected to be approved this week, Kan reported, claiming Mr Smotrich has approved more construction this year than there has been in any other.

Far-right surge

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and Religious Zionism proposed the change in December, drawing ire from Palestinians, the US and rights groups.

Advancing Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, considered illegal under international law, has been a priority of Mr Netanyahu's government, widely considered to be the most far-right in the country's history.

The move threatens to worsen an already tense situation in the West Bank and has drawn condemnation from Palestinian officials and human rights organisations.

Earlier in the month, Israel told the US that it planned to allow thousands of new settlement lots, despite Washington earlier compelling Mr Netanyahu to delay plans to expand the deeply controversial E1 settlement project just east of the contested city of Jerusalem.

“This is another step in building the superiority of Jewish Israelis in an apartheid regime in the West Bank. I don’t know if it’s a major difference from what happened before, but it’s certainly a step,” Shai Goren of NGO Ir Amin told The National.

“It represents the state taking off the mask of 'we’re temporarily occupying the territory while we wait for a solution,'” he added.

In February, former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, who served during the George W Bush administration, accused Israel of “creeping annexation” of the West Bank, violating a previous commitment to dismantle a number of illegal settlements.

Mr Goren said: “This is now clear cut. Smotrich was interviewed a couple of days ago saying there are half a million Israelis in the West Bank, and that he wants that number to double. As minister of finance, he has the means to support such an operation.”

“This is a good lesson in seeing what the government really intends with the West Bank. Steps like this make it very clear,” he added.

Sunday's news also comes despite Mr Netanyahu's promise in March not to build new settlements in the north of the West Bank, a region that has recently become home to a new generation of Palestinian militancy.

Israel's current coalition has been divided in its approach to the restive area. At the beginning of March, Mr Smotrich drew intense international criticism after he called for the northern West Bank town of Huwara to be “wiped out”.

His comments came after Israeli settlers rampaged through the town burning Palestinian property, following a deadly attack on two Israeli settlers earlier in the day.

Mr Smotrich later apologised for the comments, saying they were “a slip of the tongue in a storm of emotion”.

Palestinians call for action

The Palestinian foreign ministry has called for “real international and American action” against the decision which allows for the “quiet, noiseless” approval of settlement projects.

Hussein Al Sheikh, Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee, announced it will boycott a Monday meeting of the Higher Economic Committee scheduled with the Israelis in light of the move, and said the Palestinians are looking at other measures to take in response.

Jordan's foreign ministry also “condemned the Israeli government's decision to accelerate settlement construction and expansion, and preparation for issuing bids to build thousands of settlement units in the occupied Palestinian territories,” according to a statement released on Twitter.

Israeli NGO Peace Now said: “This pro-settler government is irresponsibly empowering those who seek to erase Palestinian villages, representing a dangerous minority driven by messianic ideals.”

“This decision will lead to further harmful construction in the settlements, in clear violation of international law,” it added.

Almost 160 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire so far this year, according to an AFP tally.

Updated: June 18, 2023, 5:07 PM