Israel approves first new West Bank settlement in 20 years

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe new settlement will be constructed near the existing settlement of Shilo

Israel has approved the establishment of its first new Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank in two decades.

The security cabinet voted unanimously late on Thursday to begin construction on a hilltop known as "Geulat Zion", near the Palestinian city of Nablus.

It will be used to house some 40 families whose homes were cleared from an unauthorised settlement outpost.

Palestinian officials have condemned the move and called on the international community to intervene.

It comes despite US President Donald Trump asking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month to "hold back" on settlement construction.

The Israeli authorities approved thousands of new homes in existing settlements after Mr Trump took office in January.

What are settlements?

More than 600,000 Jews live in about 140 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem - land the Palestinians claim for a future state. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe unauthorised settlement outpost of Amona was evacuated in early February

There are also 97 settler outposts - built without official authorisation from the Israeli government - across the West Bank, according to the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now.

However, the largest, Amona, was evacuated by police at the start of February after the Supreme Court ordered that it be dismantled because it was built on private Palestinian land.

Why is a new settlement being established?

As Israeli police cleared the last homes in Amona, Mr Netanyahu promised to establish a new settlement for the families who were being evicted.

On Thursday night, the Israeli security cabinet unanimously approved a plan to build one on a hilltop just east of the existing settlement of Shilo, which is close to the site of Amona.

It also approved tenders to build 1,992 new homes at four other existing settlements, and declared almost 100 hectares (247 acres) as "public land" in order to enable the retroactive legalisation of three outposts, according to Peace Now.

While Israel has continued to expand settlements and has retroactively approved outposts constructed without permits, this is the first time it has agreed a new settlement since the 1990s, reports the BBC's Yolande Knell in Jerusalem.

What has been the reaction?

Palestinian officials swiftly condemned the move.

"[The] 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 executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

image copyrightEPA
image captionSettlements take up land the Palestinians want as part of their future state

"Israel's relentless efforts to expand its illegal settlement enterprise with the aim of displacing Palestine and replacing it with 'Greater Israel' should send a strong message to governments worldwide that they need to intervene immediately and to undertake concrete measures to hold Israel accountable with serious punitive measures," she added.

A spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he "took notice with disappointment and alarm" of Israel's decision.

"The secretary general has consistently stressed that there is no Plan B for Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace and security. He condemns all unilateral actions that, like the present one, threaten peace and undermine the two-state solution," he said.

Peace Now said: "Netanyahu is held captive by the settlers, and chooses his political survival over the interest of the state of Israel. By giving in to settler pressure, Netanyahu is leading Israelis and Palestinians to a reality of one state and apartheid."

The Yesha Council, the leading organisation representing Jewish settlers, cautiously welcomed the security cabinet's decision, saying the "true test will be the implementation of these plans and their manifestation as actual bricks and mortar".

What has the Trump administration said?

An unnamed White House official sought to play down Israel's announcement, telling the Associated Press that "while the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace, further unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance peace".

image copyrightReuters
image captionDonald Trump's envoy, Jason Greenblatt, says he is interested in trying to broker a peace deal

"The Israeli government has made clear that going forward its intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes the president's concerns into consideration. The United States welcomes this," the official added.

At a summit in Jordan on Wednesday, Mr Trump's special representative for international negotiations discussed with Arab leaders how progress could be made towards a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Jason Greenblatt told them the president believed a peace deal was "not only possible, but would reverberate positively throughout the region and the world".