Israel approves first new West Bank settlement in decades

Palestinians put the Palestinian flag on the Israeli wall during a protest to mark land day in the West Bank city of Biet Jala.
Palestinians put the Palestinian flag on the Israeli wall during a protest to mark land day in the West Bank city of Biet Jala.PHOTO: EPA

JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) - Israel's government on Thursday (March 30) approved the establishment of a new settlement in the West Bank for the first time in more than two decades, and also laid the groundwork for further expansion despite a request from President Donald Trump to hold off on settlement activity.

It was not immediately clear whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had received a green light from the White House for Thursday's announcement.

Trump's public request to hold off on settlements came during a meeting between the two leaders at the White House last month, after a series of moves by the Israeli leader to approve thousands of new housing units in the occupied West Bank.

In a carefully calibrated statement issued two weeks before the meeting, the White House said: "While we don't believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal."

Previous administrations viewed the settlements as an obstacle to peace, and the Palestinians and much of the world consider them a violation of international law.

But it was not immediately clear whether the approval of the new settlement was meant to be a provocative move to scuttle the prospect of a revival of peace talks.

Netanyahu said he was following through on a pledge he made a few weeks ago to 40 settler families who were evacuated from the illegal Amona outpost in the West Bank. That outpost was removed by court order because it was built on privately owned Palestinian land.

"I promised at the outset that we would build a new community," Netanyahu said on Thursday. "I believe that I first gave that promise back in December, and we will uphold it today."

Some analysts have speculated that the move could be a one-off gesture meant to appease settlement advocates before Netanyahu acquiesces to the Trump administration's call for restraint, part of its push to revive long-stalled peace talks.

"Today's announcement once again proves that Israel is more committed to appeasing its illegal settler population than to abiding by the requirements for stability and a just peace," said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee.