Israel approves 2,500 new West Bank settlement homes
It's the 2nd time new construction has been approved since Donald Trump took office
Israel announced plans on Tuesday for 2,500 more settlement homes in the occupied West Bank, the second such declaration since U.S. President Donald Trump took office signalling he would be less critical of such projects than his predecessor.
A statement from the Defence Ministry, which administers lands Israel captured in a 1967 war, said the move was meant to fulfil demand for new housing "to maintain regular daily life."
Most of the construction, it said, would be in existing settlement blocs that Israel intends to keep under any future peace agreement with the Palestinians. However, a breakdown provided by the prime minister's office showed large portions of the planned homes would be outside existing blocs.
About 350,000 settlers live in the West Bank and a further 200,000 in East Jerusalem, which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war. Beyond the major blocs, most of which are close to the border with Israel, there are more than 100 settlement outposts scattered across hilltops in the West Bank.
The Palestinians, who are condemning the latest plans, want the West Bank and Gaza Strip, from which Israeli troops and settlers withdrew in 2005, for an independent state, with its capital in East Jerusalem.
Their position is backed by most of the world, but the new Trump administration has hinted it will be more tolerant of Israeli settlement activity.
Decision 'disregards' international opposition
A spokesman for Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas says the Israeli plans announced Tuesday deal a new blow to attempts to bring peace to the region and will promote extremism and terrorism.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh says the decision "disregards" international opposition to the settlements and is calling on the international community to take a "real and serious position" against Israel.
Most countries consider settlements illegal and an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace as they reduce and fragment the territory Palestinians need for a viable state.
Israel disagrees, citing biblical, historical and political connections to the land — which the Palestinians also assert — as well as security interests.
During the U.S. election campaign, Trump indicated he would dispense with former President Barack Obama's opposition to settlement building, a stance that delighted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
On Sunday, two days after Trump's inauguration, Israel announced plans for 600 new homes in East Jerusalem, and the right-wing Netanyahu told senior ministers he was lifting restrictions on settlement construction across the board.
'As much as we want'
"We can build where we want and as much as we want," an official quoted Netanyahu as telling the ministers.
"I have agreed with the defence minister to build 2,500 new homes in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) — we are building and will continue to build," Netanyahu said in a tweet.
The Defence Ministry statement said 100 of the new homes would be in Beit El, a settlement which according to Israeli media has received funding from the family of Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
David Friedman, a staunch supporter of Israeli settlers who Trump has nominated to be his ambassador to Israel, has served as president of the American Friends of Beit El, a group that raises funds for the settlement.
It was not immediately clear whether Tuesday's announcement was the first in relation to the new construction. There are several stages involved in approving and building settlement homes and announcements frequently overlap or are reissued.
Warning from Hamas
Meanwhile, Hamas rulers warned the U.S. not to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, saying such a step could unleash new violence.
In a statement Tuesday, the Islamic militant group said a move would "open a new chapter of conflict" and "add fuel to the fire."
Hamas is sworn to Israel's destruction. It has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, and fought three wars with Israel since seizing control of Gaza 10 years ago.
The rival Palestinian Authority has also urged Trump not to follow through on his campaign promise to move the embassy. The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, as their hoped-for capital.
In southern Gaza, dozens of Palestinians demonstrated against the move. Some burned a caricature of Trump.
With files from The Associated Press