Palestinians, UN decry Israel’s approval of first new settlement in over 25 years

Security cabinet plan to create new homes for settlers evicted from the wildcat settlement of Amona reflects policy of "colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing", says Palestinian official.

The Palestinian village of Turmus Ayya (background) faces houses under construction in the Jewish settlement of Shilo in the occupied West Bank between Ramallah and Nablus. The Israeli security cabinet gave its unanimous backing to the new settlement on March 30, 2017. Thomas Coex / Agence France-Presse
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Jerusalem // Palestinian officials and the United Nations on Friday condemned the Israeli government’s approval of a new settlement in the occupied West Bank for the first time in more than 25 years.

Israel’s security cabinet gave its unanimous backing to the settlement on Thursday, as what is widely seen as the most right-wing government in Israeli history presses ahead with settlement expansion in defiance of international concern.

Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said the move showed the government was pushing ahead with “their systematic policies of settler colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing, showing a total and blatant disregard for Palestinian human rights”.

“Israel is more committed to appeasing its illegal settler population than to abiding by the requirements for stability and a just peace,” she said.

Yusuf Mahmoud, spokesman for the Palestinian government in the West Bank, said: “This is a new escalating Israeli step and it shows that the Israeli government is persistent on hindering any efforts to restore the peace process.”

UN chief Antonio Guterres expressed “disappointment and alarm” at the announcement.

“The secretary general has consistently stressed that there is no Plan B for Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace and security. He condemns all unilateral actions that, like the present one, threaten peace and undermine the two-state solution,” his spokesman said. The new settlement will be constructed north of the former wildcat outpost known as Amona, which was razed in February on the orders of the Israeli high court as it was built on private Palestinian land.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised to build another settlement for its residents after their eviction.

“I promised to create a new community and we are going to respect that commitment and create it today,” he said before Thursday’s security cabinet meeting.

It will be the first entirely new settlement that an Israeli government has approved since 1991, the anti-settlement group Peace Now said.

In recent years, construction had focused instead on expanding settlements.

Peace Now said the location was “strategic for the fragmentation of the West Bank”, which Palestinians see as the bulk of their future state.

“Netanyahu is held captive by the settlers, and chooses his political survival over the interest of the state of Israel,” Peace Now said, adding it was pushing Israelis and Palestinians closer to “apartheid”.

The international community regards all Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as illegal and a major obstacle to Middle East peace.

Israel draws a distinction between those it sanctions and those it does not – so-called outposts.

The cabinet also invited tenders for nearly 2,000 more homes in existing settlements and discussed retroactively legalising three outposts, Peace Now said.

Ronen Bergman, senior correspondent for Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper, said Mr Netanyahu, who has faced corruption allegations, had been dragged further right to keep his government together.

The far-right pro-settlement Jewish Home party, part of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, often dictates the government’s agenda, he said.

Mr Netanyahu “is not calling the agenda, he is chasing the agenda”, Mr Bergman said.

The former US administration of Barack Obama was deeply opposed to Israel’s expansion of the settlements and, in December, withheld its veto from a UN Security Council resolution condemning the policy.

But since Donald Trump took office in January, settler leaders have been emboldened by his far less critical stance, and Israel has since announced more than 5,500 new homes in existing settlements.

Mr Netanyahu has been in discussions with the Trump administration on how to move ahead with construction.

Mr Trump has pledged unstinting support for Israel but has also urged Mr Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” while his administration looks for ways to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks.

His envoy Jason Greenblatt has made two visits to the region, meeting Israelis and Palestinians and attending an Arab summit in Jordan this week.

Mr Greenblatt has been working with the Israelis on a series of understandings over settlement construction in hopes of restarting peace talks that collapsed more than two years ago – in part over the thorny issue of settlements.

A senior Palestinian official said Palestinian policy now was to maintain relations and avoid confrontation over the issue with the Trump administration before president Mahmoud Abbas visits the White House in April.

The White House refrained from criticising the new settlement, but warned that further expansion could undermine peace efforts.

“While the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace, further unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance peace,” a White House official said.

“Going forward ... the Israeli government has made clear that Israel’s intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes President Trump’s concerns into consideration.”

* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting from Associated Press