Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered that plans be advanced to construct approximately 800 homes for illegal Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.
Monday’s announcement comes just days before the January 20 inauguration of Joe Bide who, unlike Donald Trump, has been critical of Israeli settlement policies in the past.
“The prime minister ordered the advancement of construction of hundreds of homes in Judea and Samaria,” the statement issued by Netanyahu’s office said, using the Biblical names for the occupied West Bank.
Monday’s statement said the 800 units would be built in the settlements of Beit El, Tal Menashe, Rehelim, Shavei Shomron, Barkan, Karnei Shomron and Givat Zeev, but gave no starting date for construction.
Under international law, settlements are considered illegal.
Palestinian officials and much of the international community view them as the main obstacle to a viable two-state solution.
The Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry condemned the latest announcement, accusing Israel of “racing against time” to build settlements before Trump leaves office.
Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Safadi said the announcement of Israel’s settlement plans “does not create the environment conducive to the resumption of negotiations that are the only path to a two-state solution”.
In a joint statement along with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Germany and France, Safadi called for Israel to “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities, including in [occupied] East Jerusalem”.
Trump, a staunch ally of Netanyahu, took a series of measures since taking office in January 2017 that have been criticised as “racist” and “discriminatory” against the Palestinian people.
His administration gave unprecedented US support to settler groups, highlighted by a declaration from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019 that Washington no longer viewed settlements as being in violation of international law.
According to watchdog group Peace Now, 2020 was one of the most prolific years for illegal settlement building.
Last year had by far the highest number of approvals since Trump took office and the highest since Peace Now began recording the figures in 2012.
But Biden has indicated his administration will restore US policy opposing settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories.
He has also promised a more even-handed approach in which he will restore aid to the Palestinians that was cut off by Trump and work to revive peace negotiations.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is facing re-election on March 23, Israel’s fourth vote in just less than two years.
A series of recent polls indicate the veteran prime minister is facing a strong right-wing challenge from pro-settler candidate Gideon Saar, who defected from Netanyahu’s far-right Likud party last month to run against the prime minister.
Netanyahu is widely expected to make a series of plays for right-wing votes, including by bolstering his pro-settlement credentials, before the vote, according to Israeli political analysts.
Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, who hopes to unseat Netanyahu in March, called the settlement announcement an “irresponsible step” that would lead to a “battle” with the new US administration.
Palestinian leaders claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as part of a future independent state.
They say the growing illegal Israeli settler population, approaching 500,000 in the West Bank, has made it increasingly difficult to achieve their bid for independence.
Netanyahu’s order to advance settlement construction is not final, with the process having to clear several bureaucratic phases and possible legal challenges from anti-occupation groups before any construction begins.
Israel announces new illegal settler homes in occupied West Bank The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Al Jazeera.