Israel has approved the construction of nearly 13,000 housing units in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank since January, setting a new record for settlement expansion under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government, according to an Israeli watchdog group.
Peace Now, a group that monitors and opposes Israeli settlement activity, said on Thursday that Israel has advanced 12,855 settler housing units across the West Bank in the first six months of 2021, the highest number it has recorded since it started tracking such activity in 2012.
The group said that the government’s Higher Planning Council (HPC), which authorizes settlement construction, met three times this year to promote settlement plans, most recently in late June, when it approved more than 5,000 new settlement homes.
The HPC also approved plans for another 1,600 housing units in May and 2,700 housing units in February, Peace Now said.
The group added that the government has also given Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, sweeping powers to expedite the construction of settlements, bypassing measures that have been in place for 27 years.
Peace Now said that the settlement expansion was a “top priority” for Netanyahu and his coalition partners, who oppose Palestinian statehood and support annexing parts of the West Bank.
“Israel’s far-right government is trying to destroy any chance for peace and a two-state solution by building more and more illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land,” said Hagit Ofran, a Peace Now activist.
The Palestinians, who seek to establish an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital, say that settlements cut off their territorial contiguity and undermine their hopes of self-determination.
Most countries consider Jewish settlements built on land Israel captured in a 1967 Middle East war as illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. The United Nations has repeatedly condemned Israel’s settlement policy as a violation of its obligations as an occupying power.
The United States, Israel’s key ally and a broker of statehood negotiations that have stalled since 2014, has also expressed its objection to Israel’s ongoing settlement expansion.
Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington “strongly opposes” unilateral steps that undermine prospects for a two-state solution, such as settlement expansion.
Blinken is expected to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories next month as part of US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the peace process.
According to the UN, some 700,000 settlers live in 279 settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, up from 520,000 in 2012. More than three million Palestinians live in the same area, subjected to Israeli military rule that some rights groups say amounts to apartheid.
Israel cites biblical and historical ties to the area and denies it maintains an apartheid policy against Palestinians.
Judicial Reform Sparks Massive Protests
Thousands of Israelis took to the streets on Saturday to protest against the government’s plan to overhaul the judicial system, which critics say would undermine the independence and authority of the Supreme Court.
The protesters, who gathered in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities, chanted slogans such as “Save the democracy” and “Bibi go home”, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is leading the judicial reform initiative.
The reform plan, which was approved by the cabinet last week, would allow a simple majority of 61 lawmakers in the 120-seat parliament to override Supreme Court rulings that strike down laws as unconstitutional. It would also give the parliament more influence over the appointment of judges.