Jerusalem (AFP) – Israel has approved plans for more than 200 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, adding to a sharp increase in settlement projects so far this year, Israeli campaigners said Thursday.
Israel’s government disputed the claim, saying nearly all approvals involved “upgrading existing structures” and not new construction, without providing a more detailed breakdown.
Settlements are considered illegal under international law and are seen as major stumbling blocks to peace efforts since they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.
Hagit Ofran, a spokeswoman for settlement watchdog Peace Now, said the government had given the green light for at least 229 new homes, which are at various stages in the technical process.
The new units were also reported by Israeli newspapers.
The projects must pass through five administrative stages before winning final approval from Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon.
An Israeli government statement said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yaalon had “not approved new construction.”
“Almost all of the permits are for upgrading existing structures,” it said.
“The small proportion of them pertaining to new construction are for the community of Ganei Modiin, which abuts the fence and which will be part of Israel in any future agreement.”
Peace Now said this week that the number of West Bank settlements Israel plans to build more than tripled in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period last year.
Between January and March, projects for 674 housing units passed at least one of the steps in the planning approval process, up from 194 in the first quarter of 2015, it said.
The new plans would bring the total to at least 903.
“This policy is killing the two-state solution,” Ofran told AFP.
The United States and the European Union, among others, have strongly criticised Israeli settlement construction.
Palestine Liberation Organisation secretary general Saeb Erekat said in a statement that “the continued Israeli colonisation of Palestine is a war crime under international law.”
– Push for UN resolution –
According to Peace Now and Israeli media, the new plans call for additional homes in a range of settlements.
They include Har Brakha (54 units) near Nablus in the northern West Bank; Revava (17), also in the northern West Bank; Ganei Modiin (48), northwest of Jerusalem; Tekoa (34), south of Jerusalem; and Givat Zeev (76), north of Jerusalem.
Some 2.8 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem in near constant tension with more than 500,000 Israeli settlers.
Ofran said the new plans “will allow approximately another 1,000 people to move to the settlements, people that we will need to evict in order to get a peace deal.”
Earlier this week, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas told AFP in an interview that there is an “urgent” need for a UN resolution on Israeli settlements.
He made the comments just before he left on a multi-country diplomatic tour that may be among the 81-year-old’s last chances to renew peace efforts.
The Palestinians are currently discussing a UN draft resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Abbas’s two-week tour will end in New York.
The United States has repeatedly vetoed resolutions opposed by Israel at the UN Security Council, but there has been speculation that President Barack Obama may change tack in the waning days of his administration.
Peace efforts have meanwhile been at a standstill since a US initiative collapsed two years ago.
A wave of violence that erupted in October has killed 200 Palestinians and 28 Israelis.
Most of the Palestinians killed were carrying out knife, gun or car-ramming attacks, according to Israeli authorities.
Others were shot dead by Israeli forces during protests and clashes, while some were killed in Israeli air raids in the Gaza Strip.
The attacks have steadily declined in recent weeks, though there are concerns that the Jewish Passover holiday beginning April 22 will lead to a new upsurge.