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Israel OK's 2,500 new Jewish homes in Palestinian territory

JERUSALEM -- Israel’s government said Tuesday that it had approved the construction of 2,500 new homes in West Bank settlements.

In a statement from his office, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed on the approval “in response to housing needs.”

He said the majority of the housing units would be built in settlement blocs, areas where most settlers live and which Israel wants to keep under its control under any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

The election of President Trump has emboldened pro-settlement lawmakers, including Lieberman and Netanyahu. Mr. Trump has indicated that he will be more sympathetic to Israeli settlement construction.

Mr. Trump’s pick to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, New York lawyer David Friedman, has headed the American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva organization, which supports the Beit El settlement in the West Bank. Beit El is one of the settlements set to get new homes under the expansion plans announced by the Israeli government on Tuesday. 

The choice of Friedman -- a public supporter of settlement expansion in Palestinian territory -- as American envoy to Israel was blasted as “reckless” by some liberal Jewish groups, and decried by Palestinians. 

Mr. Trump has also drawn outcry from Palestinian leaders with a campaign trail promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their rightful capital.

The Palestinians were quick to condemn the plans for new settlement homes.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Israeli plans deal a new blow to attempts to bring peace to the region and will promote extremism and terrorism.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh said the decision “disregards” international opposition to the settlements and called on the international community to take a “real and serious position” against Israel.

The Palestinians say settlements are undermining peace hopes by gobbling up the land where they hope to establish an independent state. Their position is backed by most of the world, but the new Trump administration has hinted it will be more tolerant of Israeli settlement activity.

Much of the international community views settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.

Gaza’s Hamas rulers, meanwhile, warned the U.S. not to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, saying such a step could unleash new violence.

In a statement Tuesday, the Islamic militant group said a move would “open a new chapter of conflict” and “add fuel to the fire.”

Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction. It has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, and fought three wars with Israel since seizing control of Gaza 10 years ago.

The rival Palestinian Authority has also urged President Trump not to follow through on his campaign promise to move the embassy. The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, as their hoped-for capital.

In southern Gaza, dozens of Palestinians demonstrated against the move. Some burned a caricature of Mr. Trump.