Israel ignores US opposition and moves ahead with huge settlement project
Israel on Wednesday moved ahead with plans to build more than 3,000 homes for settlers in the occupied West Bank, defying the Biden administration's strongest criticism to date of such projects widely deemed contrary to international law.
The plan involves 3,144 housing units, 1,344 of which were given preliminary approval on Wednesday, while the remaining 1,800 homes are set to be approved at a later date.
Defence Minister Benny Gantz will give the approval for the construction permits to be issued, however, doing so could risk further friction with the US.
"This government is trying to balance between its good relations with the Biden administration and the various political constraints," a senior Israeli official told Reuters.
The decision to advance the settlement plan also comes a day after the Biden administration issued its harshest rebuke of Israeli policy yet.
"We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm, and it damages the prospects for a two-state solution," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday.
"In addition, we're concerned about the publication of tenders on Sunday for 1,300 settlement units in a number of West Bank settlements," he added, referring to the recent decision to invite bids to build more settler homes in the West Bank, a Palestinian territory under Israeli military occupation.
Biden administration officials also protested the move in private, according to Axios, with the top US diplomat in Jerusalem, Michael Ratney, complaining that most of the new housing units were in isolated settlements deep in the West Bank.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Gantz on Tuesday to cancel the meeting set to approve the settlement plan, noting the construction would be met with a harsh response from Washington.
Gantz, however, said Israel was advancing a "balanced" construction plan, since it was not promoting all the construction plans on the table.
Bassam al-Salhe, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said the plans showed the "Israeli government under [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett is no less extreme than what it had been under Netanyahu".
"The US administration has words, and no deeds, to change the policy that had been put in place by Trump," Salhe told Reuters.
The settlement plan comes as the Israel-US relationship is already facing multiple tests under President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Washington is working on negotiating the reopening of the US consulate in Jerusalem to open its services to Palestinians, a move opposed by Israeli officials.
Israel is meanwhile sending a delegation to the US in order to justify its decision to outlaw six Palestinian civil society groups, a move that was met with criticism from international human rights organisations.
The US said it was not given advance warning of the prohibition, and wanted more evidence from Israel that the groups should be banned.
In addition to further straining relations with the US, the settlement plans could also alienate left-wing and Arab parties in Bennett's coalition government, which holds only a razor-thin parliamentary majority.
Most countries regard the settlements Israel has built in territory it captured in a 1967 Middle East war as illegal under international law, with the Geneva Conventions explicitly outlawing the transfer of population from an occupying power into occupied territory. Palestinians meanwhile seek to create a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem has continued under every Israeli government since 1967.
Construction of settlements accelerated, however, in the past few years under former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.