Israel starts process of authorising new West Bank settlements

Settlers in Givat Asaf, northeast of Ramallah, in October 2011. Settlers in Givat Assaf protested against previous plans to dismantle the outpost

The Israeli government has taken steps to authorise four new Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

It has begun a legal process that could see four settlement outposts given legal approval under Israeli law.

The decision has been condemned by Palestinian officials.

It comes just days before the United States Secretary of State John Kerry is due to meet the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to discuss restarting peace talks.

"The timing is very significant because it's a direct affront to all efforts at trying to revive any kind of peace negotiations. It's an attempt to tell the Americans that Israel calls the shots," PLO official, Hanan Ashrawi told the BBC.

"It's also a message about the true nature of this Israeli coalition government. It's an anti-peace government."

A spokesman for the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment.

The Israeli Supreme Court has received a document from the Israeli government saying it is examining ways to authorise four settlement outposts in the West Bank.

Thorny issue

The last round of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down two years ago over the issue of settlements.

Under international law all of the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal.

Israel disputes this and distinguishes between about 120 settlements authorised by the government and dozens of outposts built without permission.

BBC Map

The outposts affected by the latest move include Givat Assaf, east of the Palestinian city of Ramallah, which was previously ordered to be demolished. The others are Haroeh, north of Ramallah, Maale Rehavam, east of Bethlehem and Mitzpe Lachish, south of Hebron.

The Israeli settlement watchdog, Peace Now, had sent a petition against a total of six outposts to the Supreme Court, seeking their evacuation. A hearing is due on 22 May.

The intent to make four of them legal emerged from the government's official response to the Peace Now petition delivered on Tuesday. Instructions on legal steps were passed on to the Civil Administration, a unit of the Defence Ministry that administers the West Bank.

US diplomacy

"It's legalising illegal action and creating a possibility of more illegal construction. This gives a green light to the illegal establishment of outposts because it shows permission can be sorted out retrospectively," says Melanie Robbins, a spokeswoman for Peace Now.

However settlers welcomed the move. "This case has just been pursued to turn the whole political issue of outposts into a legal issue," says Dror Barleavav, who lives in Maale Rehavam.

Last week, Peace Now and Israeli media reports said that Mr Netanyahu had quietly halted some settlement activity by freezing tenders for new homes. It was suggested that this was designed to help peace efforts.

However, a few days later Israel announced that it had given preliminary approval for nearly 300 new settler housing units in Beit El. The prime minister had announced the plan last year to re-house settlers from another nearby outpost, Ulpana.

Mr Kerry is due to meet Mr Netanyahu and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on 21 and 22 May. It will be his fourth visit to the region this year.

He has said he hopes to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks within a short time frame.

The main issues to be addressed in a peace agreement include borders, the future of Jewish settlements, the status of Jerusalem and fate of Palestinian refugees.

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