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Israel approves 3,000 settlement homes in West Bank

Israel has approved the construction of 3,000 more settlement homes in one of the government’s biggest announcements on its building programme in recent years.

The statement on Tuesday evening is a further sign that the rightwing government feels it has a free hand to build housing for Jewish settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories following the election of US President Donald Trump. 

It came as Israel began to evacuate the West Bank settler outpost of Amona, which the country’s Supreme Court ruled in 2014 was built on private Palestinian land and must be demolished.

The evacuation is a politically sensitive step that has been debated in Israel for months and created friction in Benjamin Netanyahu’s six-party coalition, which includes several far-right, pro-settler politicians. 

Police and soldiers were deployed to the area, officials said, ahead of the evacuation of some 40 families, and hundreds of supporters who have massed in support. Protesters burnt tyres in a bid to block their path to the hilltop where they live in mobile homes.

“There is a deployment of military troops, border police, and Israeli police working in tandem to implement the government’s decision,” Lt Col Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, told the Financial Times on Wednesday. A police spokesman said that “several thousand” police would be involved in the operation. 

Israeli policemen line up as they prepare to evict residents of the Israeli settler outpost of Amona © Reuters

The statement on new settlement building comes on the back of last week’s announcement that Israel would build more than 3,000 homes in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where the Palestinians want to build their state. Israel continued building in the settlements during the eight years of President Barack Obama’s administration, but their expansion was constrained by US pressure. 

Mr Netanyahu and his main far-right rival Naftali Bennett, who heads the pro-settler Jewish Home party, have welcomed Mr Trump’s election, which they say will give Israel greater freedom on its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the occupied territories. A statement issued by the Ministry of Defence on Wednesday announcing the new settlement housing said that the decision “comes as part of the return to normal life in Judea and Samaria”, the term Israelis use for the West Bank. 

The UN in December approved a Security Council resolution calling on Israel to halt all settlement activity, with 14 world powers voting in favour and the US abstaining. Palestinian political leaders, leftwing pro-Palestinian groups and most of the international community describe the settlements as a primary obstacle to peace, but Israel says Palestinian obstructionism and incitement are blocking the way. 

“Recent advancements prove once again that this government has decided to prevent the possibility of a Palestinian state and to fulfil a political ambition of apartheid,” Lior Amihai, an activist with the Israeli non-governmental organisation Peace Now, said of the most recent settlement announcement. “We are also witnessing political bribery to the extreme rightwing due to the expected eviction of the illegal outpost, built on private Palestinian land.” 

Amona’s fate has become a political football in Israel with the arrival of the Trump administration, and its apparent removal of constraints on Israeli policy. The settlement was built on private land and is considered illegal under Israeli law. Attempts to locate the settlers elsewhere in the area last year were confronted by legal challenges from Palestinians who said they had claims on the land. 

The Israeli Knesset is considering a controversial bill that would retroactively legalise settler outposts, but it excludes Amona as the outpost was subject to an existing court evacuation order.

Although the military blocked access to the area around Amona overnight, hundreds of teenagers made their way to the hilltop outpost. Past evacuations of settlements in Israel have brought violent clashes between settlers and military troops and police.

Via FT