UN tells Israel to stop settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem

Expansion of legally invalid housing in the occupied territories defies 2016 Security Council resolution

A view shows Palestinian houses in the village of Wadi Fukin as the Jewish settlement of Beitar Illit is seen in the background, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 23, 2019. Picture taken June 23, 2019.  REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma
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The UN on Thursday accused Israel of flagrantly breaching international law by expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying they were illegal and urging the country's new government to halt the process immediately.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland reported on implementation of a 2016 Security Council resolution that declared the settlements have “no legal validity”.

Mr Wennesland said in a briefing to the council on Mr Guterres’s 12-page report that he was “deeply troubled” by Israel’s approval of a plan to add 540 housing units to the Har Homa settlement in East Jerusalem, as well as the establishment of settlement outposts in the West Bank, which he said were “illegal also under Israeli law”.

The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“I again underscore, in no uncertain terms, that Israeli settlements constitute a flagrant violation of United Nations resolutions and international law. They are a major obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace,” the UN envoy said

“The advancement of all settlement activity must cease immediately.”

Israel disputes that its settlements are illegal.

Mr Guterres and Mr Wennesland also called on Israeli authorities to end the demolition of Palestinian homes and other property and the displacement of Palestinians – another flashpoint – “and to approve plans that would enable these communities to build legally and address their development needs”.

The December 2016 resolution, from which the US abstained in the final weeks of the Obama administration, called for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians and urged Israel and Palestinians to exercise restraint and refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric.

It also called on all parties to launch negotiations on final status issues and urged intensified international and regional diplomatic efforts to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict and achieve a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace.

Mr Guterres and Mr Wennesland made clear that four and a half years after the resolution’s adoption, none of these appeals have been met.

Mr Wennesland said the period between March and June covered in the report “witnessed an alarming increase in the level of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, including hostilities between Israel and factions in Gaza at a scale and intensity not seen in years”.

He said the cessation of hostilities after last month's 11-day Gaza war "remains very fragile". The UN is working closely with Israel, the Palestinians and partners including Egypt "to solidify a ceasefire, allow the entry of urgent humanitarian assistance and stabilise the situation in Gaza", he said.

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is demanding significant easing of the Israeli blockade.

Israel has said it will not tolerate even relatively minor attacks from Gaza, including the launch of incendiary balloons, which triggered Israeli air strikes last week.

“I urge all sides to refrain from unilateral steps and provocations, take steps to reduce tensions, and allow these efforts to succeed,” Mr Wennesland told the council. “Everyone must do their part to facilitate ongoing discussions to stabilise the situation on the ground and avoid another devastating escalation in Gaza.”

He called on all Palestinian factions “to make serious efforts to ensure the reunification of Gaza and the West Bank under a single, legitimate, democratic, national government”, saying that Gaza must remain part of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.

During the March to June reporting period, Mr Guterres said 295 Palestinians, including 42 women and 73 children, were killed by Israeli security forces and 10,149 were injured during demonstrations, clashes, search-and-arrest operations, air strikes, shelling and other incidents in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The UN chief said 90 members of the Israeli security forces and 857 Israeli civilians were injured by Palestinians during the same period in clashes, incidents in which stones and firebombs were thrown, the indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortars and other incidents.

The Gaza war was the worst outbreak of hostilities since 2014, with Palestinian armed groups firing more than 4,000 rockets and projectiles towards Israel and Israeli forces carrying out more than 1,500 strikes from air, land and sea across the Gaza Strip, Mr Guterres said, quoting Israeli sources.

During the conflict, 259 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and 41 women, while nine Israelis, including two children, were killed along with three foreigners. Hundreds of Israelis were wounded.