Amid a global outcry, Israel on Wednesday proposed two new West Bank settlements for construction, drawing intense criticism from the U.S. and European Union.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman issued a statement saying that the plans would begin immediately, but did not elaborate on the locations. Israel has agreed to redeploy from the Palestinian cities of Beit Daras, near Ramallah, and Burin, south of Jerusalem, allowing Palestinians to return to those areas.
The U.S. State Department said it was “gravely concerned.” Other Western officials slammed the decision as undermining efforts to revive a peace process.
The recent initiatives are on top of about 45 West Bank settlements that have been built since the late 1990s, which many Palestinians believe amount to an “occupation” of Palestinian land. The World Court has concluded that Israeli settlements are illegal.
Since June 2008, Israel has suspended new settlement construction in the West Bank, following international demands. That ceasefire has been broken in several cases, including in the Gaza Strip, in response to rocket fire and other attacks.
On Wednesday, Israel proposed to build two new settlements, near Hebron, and in an area near Bethlehem.
“No one can remember when one of these types of moves was taken before,” a top Palestinian negotiator said. “It raises the issue of deception. This continues the policy of deceiving the international community, and Israel is provoking world opinion.”
The U.S. State Department said it was “gravely concerned” and warned Israel against taking “unilateral action” to change the contours of the 1967 borders.
“It is a serious step that undermines the possibility of resuming a meaningful dialogue, and we reiterate our strong condemnation of Israeli settlement activity,” State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said.
Concern about expanding settlements, known in Hebrew as “homes of usurpers,” spilled over into other European countries, too.
“We call on Israel to refrain from taking any steps that will prejudice the outcome of negotiations or undermine the viability of a Palestinian state,” Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said.
The European Union has said that any attempts to change the 1967 borders would be unacceptable. European governments will meet later this week to evaluate its policies on settlement expansion.
In a statement, the Foreign Office in the UK said “We strongly oppose settlement activity and any unilateral steps by the Israelis that could prejudge final status issues.”
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa also condemned the move and urged Israel to renew its moratorium on settlement construction.
Israeli authorities said in the statement that both the Beit Daras and Burin developments have been in the works for years and did not violate the moratorium.
Both Beit Daras and Burin were under Israeli control until Israel withdrew in 2000.
The proposed site of the proposed settlement near Hebron was also approved by the Israeli military in 2005 and was abandoned when some Palestinians who live there got elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council.
In the West Bank, Palestinians live under a military order, which grants only limited rights to residents in the area under its control.
A two-year moratorium on settlement construction, which expired in September, was extended repeatedly by Netanyahu but Israel has failed to reach a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Jerusalem Post contributed to this report.