Israel presses on with settlement plans despite US criticism

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attends a news conference after announcing that he will sign an order to seize Palestinian Authority funds and transfer them to the families of victims of Palestinian attacks, at Israel’s Finance Minis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich pledged to continue expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, defying international pressure on Israel to stop building on land Palestinians see as the core of a future independent state.

Late on Tuesday, Smotrich announced the approval of a new settlement called Mishmar Yehuda, in Gush Etzion, a cluster of Jewish settlements located south of Jerusalem, and said work would continue on authorizing further settlements.

“We will continue the momentum of settlement throughout the country,” he said in a statement.

The move comes just days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington considered Jewish settlements in the West Bank to be inconsistent with international law, reverting to a longstanding U.S. position that was overturned by the administration of former President Donald Trump.

The change brought the United States back into line with most of the world, which considers the settlements built on territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war to be illegal. Israel itself disputes this view, citing the Jewish people’s historical and Biblical ties to the land.

The Palestinians say that the expansion of settlements across the West Bank is part of a deliberate Israeli policy to undermine its ambition of creating an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Last week, Israeli ministers agreed to convene a planning council to approve some 3,300 homes to be built in settlements, a decision that Blinken said had disappointed Washington, which has been pushing a resumption of efforts for a two state solution to the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Smotrich, the influential leader of one of the hard-right pro-settler parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, himself lives in a settlement and has consistently backed further settlement building.

“This is also our answer to the nations of the world,” said Shlomo Ne’eman, Mayor of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. “We will continue onwards and strengthen Gush Etzion with more residents, more schools, more roads and more kindergartens.”

The Israeli advocacy group Peace Now, which monitors settlement expansion, said in a report last month there had been an unprecedented surge in settlement activities since the start of the Gaza war in October.

According to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, just under 700,000 settlers live in 279 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, up from 520,000 in 2012.


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