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Israel approves new East Jerusalem settlement homes just days before Biden sworn in

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Gush Etzion settlement, south of Bethlehem city, West Bank on November 19, 2019. Kobi Gideon/GPO/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Tel Aviv, Israel — The Israeli government has approved the construction of 780 new housing units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank regarded widely by the world as illegal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the construction of the new homes last week, just days before his support for such moves from Washington is widely expected to end with the transition to the Biden administration.

The Higher Planning Council (HPC) of the Civil Administration on Sunday formally approved the new construction in the West Bank.

Israel seized control of the West Bank in 1967, and most of the world considers construction in the area illegal. The Trump administration, however, has supported Netanyahu's policies of cementing control over the occupied , which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as part of a future capital.

Mr. Trump's administration has accepted Israel's claim to the ground, arguing that international laws that prohibit construction on the occupied territory are no longer relevant.  

The controversial push for new Jewish settler homes in the West Bank may be rooted in politics. Israel will hold national elections on March 23, and Netanyahu, who's facing trial on corruption charges, is determined to get as many votes from conservative, pro-settler parties as possible. Ordering settlement expansions will certainly help.

Just before the last round of elections in March 2020, Netanyahu tried a similar strategy, declaring the annexation of parts of the Jordan Valley and other areas in the West Bank. The Trump administration poured cold water on the plan, and it never advanced.

Netanyahu seeks new term in high-stakes vote 08:43

European countries quickly voiced concern over the Israeli government's latest intentions to allow new construction in the settlements.

A spokesman for the United Kingdom's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the government was "seriously concerned" by Israel's "decision to approve the construction of 780 new settlement units across the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including areas deep within the West Bank which could threaten future peace negotiations."

"Settlements are illegal under international law and risk undermining the physical viability of the two state solution. We call for the construction of these in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank to cease immediately," the statement said.

The anti-settlement Israeli pressure group Peace Now said that by "promoting hundreds of settlement units, Prime Minister Netanyahu is once again putting his personal political interests over those of the country."

"Not only will this settlement activity erode the possibility for a conflict-ending resolution with the Palestinians in the long-term, but in the short-term it needlessly sets Israel on a collision course with the incoming Biden administration," the group predicted.

There was no immediate reaction from the outgoing Trump administration to the construction approval, nor any indication from Mr. Biden's incoming diplomatic or security teams as to how his administration might react.

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