Israel advances settlement plans despite Trump plea

A mosque and homes in the Palestinian city of Hebron provide the backdrop as an Israeli child plays in the Kiryat Arba settlement, one of the oldest in the West Bank.
A mosque and homes in the Palestinian city of Hebron provide the backdrop as an Israeli child plays in the Kiryat Arba settlement, one of the oldest in the West Bank. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST/DAVID VAAKNIN

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel has advanced plans for more than 3,000 homes in West Bank settlements this week, despite United States President Donald Trump's call to hold back on such projects as he seeks ways to restart peace efforts.

Israel pushed forward with the plans as it also marked 50 years since the Six-Day War, fought from June 5-10, 1967, and which began its continuing occupation of the West Bank.

A total of 3,178 housing units were advanced in a number of different settlements, the Peace Now NGO that tracks settlement growth told Agence France-Presse on Thursday (June 8).

They are the first new settlement announcements since Mr Trump's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories last month, when he tried to encourage both sides back to the negotiating table.

Mr Trump has called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold back on settlement building for now, but the right-wing Israeli leader has been under intense pressure from settler leaders.

US State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said she was aware of a government announcement of "about 2,500 new units in the West Bank".

"President Trump has talked about this consistently and he has said that in his opinion, unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance the peace process," she said.

The powerful settler movement wields heavy influence in Mr Netanyahu's right-wing governing coalition.

On Tuesday, a defence ministry planning committee advanced 1,500 units, while more than 900 more were added on Wednesday, Peace Now said.

In a separate process, 688 homes were advanced by the committee late on Wednesday and will now go out for a 60-day public comment period during which objections can be filed.

The plans are at various stages in the process and the units are in a number of settlements across the West Bank.

'ULTIMATE DEAL'

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the plan for the new housing units.

The Israeli authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

More than 600,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank, including in annexed east Jerusalem.

They live alongside some three million Palestinians.

Settlements are considered illegal under international law and are seen as a major obstacle to the so-called two state solution - the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Israel blames Palestinian incitement and intransigence for the ongoing conflict.

While the majority of the planned homes are in pre-existing settlements, some will be built in the first new official settlement in some 25 years, Peace Now said.

Last month, Mr Trump visited Israel and the Palestinian territories, meeting both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas as he seeks what he has called the "ultimate deal".

But he has given no details about how he plans to restart talks, and there is deep scepticism over whether such an effort would have any chance of success.

Mr Netanyahu has said he still supports a two-state solution, but peace advocates say his actions show otherwise.

On Tuesday, the Premier told settlers he would keep building across the West Bank.

'STRONG PRESSURE'

"Netanyahu has been trying to hold back but he has been under very strong pressure from the settlement movement," Mr Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group think-tank said.

Mr Abbas's spokesman called Mr Netanyahu's statements a "challenge" to Mr Trump and the international community.

"It is a challenge to (Trump's) efforts to create an appropriate atmosphere for a serious political process, and a blatant challenge to the international community as a whole," a statement said.

Mr Hugh Lovatt, Israel coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said the new settlements would not totally derail Mr Trump's push.

The Palestinians have previously demanded a settlement freeze as a pre-condition to returning to negotiations, but there have been suggestions that Mr Abbas has dropped this since Mr Trump came to power.

But Mr Zalzberg said more settlement announcements could push the two sides further apart.

"It is becoming more difficult to square the circle to get negotiations going," he said.