Israel has announced plans to build more residences for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, drawing immediate condemnation from Palestinians, peace activists and neighbouring Jordan.
The announcement on Sunday from the Ministry of Construction and Housing in right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government said tenders had been published for 1,355 homes in the West Bank, which was seized by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Those new homes add to the more than 2,000 residences that defence sources said in August would be authorised for West Bank settlers.
Housing Minister Zeev Elkin, a member of the right-wing New Hope party, said in a statement “strengthening Jewish presence [in the West Bank] was essential to the Zionist vision”.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, speaking at a weekly cabinet meeting, called on other nations – especially the United States – to “confront” Israel over the “aggression” that settlement construction poses for the Palestinian people.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) will be keenly watching for a response from US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has said it opposes unilateral Israeli settlement construction as an obstacle to a two-state solution to the conflict.
On Friday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US was “concerned” about the housing plans. He called on Israel and the Palestinians to “refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tension and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution”.
About 475,000 Israeli Jews live in settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law, on land Palestinians claim as part of their future state.
Jordan condemned the announcement as “a violation of international law”.
Jordanian foreign ministry spokesman Haitham Abu al-Ful blasted settlement construction and general “confiscation” of Palestinian land as “illegitimate”.
Anti-occupation group Peace Now said Sunday’s announcement proved that Bennett’s ideologically diverse coalition, which replaced former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pro-settlement government in June, was not “a government of change”.
“This government clearly continues Netanyahu’s policy of de facto annexation,” Peace Now said, calling on Bennett’s left-wing governing partners, the Labor and Meretz parties, to “wake up and demand the wild building in settlements cease immediately”.
Moshe Hellinger, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, told AFP news agency the right-wing factions in Bennett’s eight-party coalition “need to show their voters that they are defending their interests despite being in a coalition with the left”.
Preserving the coalition, which also includes an Islamist party, will require all sides to “swallow snakes”, he said.
Bennett, the former head of a settler lobby group, opposes Palestinian statehood.
He has ruled out formal peace talks with the PA during his tenure, saying he prefers to focus on economic improvements.
Shortly after the settlement announcement, the defence ministry said it was issuing an additional 9,000 permits for Palestinians in the West Bank to work in the Israeli construction industry. On top of those, the goal is to add another 6,000 permits “shortly”, it said.
About 120,000 Palestinians currently have permits to work either in Israel or in settlements, generally earning far higher wages than equivalent work would pay in the occupied West Bank.
The new settlement homes are to be built in seven settlements, according to the statement from the housing ministry.
Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem has continued under every Israeli government since 1967.
However, construction accelerated in the last few years under Netanyahu, with a significant boom during former President Donald Trump’s US administration, which Palestinians accused of egregious pro-Israel bias.