Israel officially approved the construction of hundreds of new homes in the West Bank, the Defence Ministry said today, deepening an already unprecedented rift with the US over Israeli settlement expansion.
The construction is the first approved by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under heavy US pressure to freeze all settlement activity on captured lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
Mr Netanyahu, trying to placate the Americans, has said the newly approved homes are a prelude to a freeze, but that’s been a tough sell internationally because Israel also plans to complete an additional 2,500 homes already under way.
Under the order, Defence Minister Ehud Barak authorised construction of 366 new apartments, the Defence Ministry announced.
A further 84 new apartments will be approved in the near future, bringing the total number to 450, the ministry said.
The order includes permission to proceed with construction of a new settler enclave in the Jordan Valley, an area that is considered vital to a future Palestinian state because of its rich farmlands and location deep inside the West Bank.
By rebuffing US pressure, Mr Netanyahu has tried to cement the support of a coalition that is committed to strengthening Israel’s control over the West Bank.
At the same time, he has offered to slow construction afterward in exchange for overtures from the Arab world. This has mollified the Americans or the Palestinians, who have demanded an immediate and total freeze.
“Given the choice between making peace and making settlements, they have chosen to make settlements,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
Dani Dayan, leader of the West Bank settlers’ council, said the government had approved only limited construction and accused it of caving in to American pressure.
“North Korea is going on developing its nuclear capabilities, Iran is going on developing its nuclear capabilities, we have threats all over the world and all the world international community is interested with is whether my daughter builds her house next to mine,” he told foreign reporters. “It is all based on the erroneous perception that the creation of a Palestinian state is the magical solution to the situation here.”
The Palestinians want to establish an independent state that includes the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and the coastal territory was subsequently taken over by Hamas militants.
About 300,000 Israelis live among about 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and an additional 180,000 live in Jewish neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem.
While it could take months or years for construction to begin on most of the homes approved today, infrastructure work was already in progress for 20 houses in the Jordan Valley enclave of Maskiot.