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Israel's Netanyahu government advances settlement expansion

Israel's High Planning Committee advances plans approved by the government Feb. 12 for thousands of new housing units in West Bank settlements.
A picture taken from the east Jerusalem Palestinian Shuafat refugee camp shows a view of the settlement of Pisgat Zeev (C), in the northern part of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, and the Palestinian area of al-Ram in the occupied West Bank (background), Feb. 23, 2023.

Israel’s High Planning Committee in the Civil Administration approved plans on Thursday to promote the construction of some 4,000 new housing units in West Bank settlements.

On Wednesday, the committee approved the promotion of some 3,000 apartments. In total, 7,287 housing units were approved in two days, and 2,000 housing units are expected to be approved either on Friday or next week. In comparison, 4,427 were approved in total in 2022 and 3,645 in 2021.

The 7,287 new housing units approved are part of a plan authorized by the government Feb. 12, to advance the construction of some 10,000 new housing units in West Bank settlements and legalize nine wildcat outposts. The government’s plan was condemned across the international community, including the United States, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arabb Emirates. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on the phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, noting that Washington objects to any unilateral steps likely to increase regional tension.

On Monday, the UN Security Council published a presidential statement, expressing deep concerns over settlement expansion. Netanyahu said that Israel intends to follow up on the plans approved but will not legalize other wildcat outposts in the coming months.

The plans advanced on Wednesday and Thursday are comprised of building projects in 35 settlements. Out of the 7,287 new housing units advanced, 1,900 homes received final approval for construction. The other housing units were advanced to a next planning stage. Some of the building projects advanced de facto legalize wildcat outposts — not included in the list of nine outposts to be legalized — by defining them as neighborhoods of existing settlements, and not separate settlements.

Reports in the Israeli press say the government also intends to advance plans for a new neighborhood of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement, located in the controversial E1 area outside of Jerusalem. The international community has long pressured Israel to refrain from advancing settlements there, as Jewish construction in the area would divide the West Bank into northern and southern regions, disconnecting east Jerusalem from Bethlehem and Ramallah. Reports say that a subcommittee of the Civil Administration is scheduled to convene next month, to hear objections to the plan for the new neighborhood. Still, even if the hearing takes place and even if all objections are waived, the approval process could take several months to be completed.

The recent meetings of the High Planning Committee come on the backdrop of growing tensions between Jerusalem and Ramallah. On Wednesday, 10 Palestinians were killed and dozens were injured in fire exchanges between Israeli security forces and armed Palestinians in Nablus, following an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) raid on suspected terrorists.

Shortly after the Nablus raid, Hamas pledged to retaliate. Six rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip toward southern Israel late Wednesday into early Thursday, with no casualties registered. The IDF retaliated by targeting Hamas sites early Thursday morning. Reports in the Arab press say that Egypt has been conducting intensive talks in the past two days with groups in Gaza in order to avoid escalation. Still, thousands of Palestinians have been reportedly marching and demonstrating late Thursday night into early Friday morning throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, calling for revenge.

Another source of tension is the formalization on Thursday of a clause in the coalition agreement, handing over the responsibility for the Civil Administration (handling construction in the West Bank), from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. Washington had expressed in the past its objection to handing over the pro-settler minister such responsibilities.

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