Israeli settlement approvals hit record high
Israel has approved over 12,000 West Bank homes in 2020, a record high for illegal Israeli building in occupied Palestinian territory, settlement watchdog Peace Now said on Thursday.
The announcement came after an Israeli defence ministry planning committee approved plans for 4,948 more housing units during a two-day meeting held on Wednesday and Thursday, Peace Now said.
The latest approvals come less than a month after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements to normalise relations with Israel.
"These approvals make 2020 the highest year on record in terms of units in settlement plans promoted since Peace Now began recording in 2012," Peace Now said in a statement.
"The count so far is 12,159 units approved in 2020," it added, noting that the committee might hold another round of approvals before the end of the year.
"While de jure annexation may be suspended, the de facto annexation of settlement expansion is clearly continuing," Peace Now said.
"These recent approvals put to rest any speculation about a de facto settlement freeze."
Last July, Israel put on hold a plan to annex roughly one-third of the West Bank.
UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said the latest approvals were "of great concern to all those who remain committed to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace," and "undermine the prospect of achieving a viable two-state solution".
"Settlement construction is illegal under international law and is one of the major obstacles to peace," he said in a statement, calling on Israel to immediately cease all settlement-related activities.
Israeli settlers celebrate
However, the Yesha Council, which represents settlers throughout the West Bank, expressed "joy" over the approvals.
"Construction cannot be a bargaining chip in peace agreements or other issues," the organisation said.
"Construction needs to freely continue in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley, without conditions or diplomatic approval, like in the rest of the country," it said, using terms many in Israel use to refer to the West Bank.
The Palestinians and neighbouring Jordan on Wednesday condemned the recent approvals.
Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said Israel had exploited improving relations in the Gulf and "blind support from the Trump administration".
Last January President Donald Trump unveiled the much-condemned ‘Deal of the Century’ peace plan, which gave US blessing to Israeli annexation of large chunks of the West Bank, including the settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.
However, Israel later put the plan on hold. When the UAE signed its normalisation agreement with Israel, it claimed that the deal had stopped Israel’s annexation plans, but Prime Minister Netanyahu said that they were merely delayed, not shelved.
The UAE and Bahrain’s agreements with Israel violated the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offered Israel normalisation only in exchange for withdrawal from illegally occupied Palestinian land. Palestinians condemned the deals as “a stab in the back”.
Over 620,000 Israelis live in settlements in the occupied West Bank, which is home to roughly 3 million Palestinians.