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The US administration has criticised a decision by Israel’s far-right government to advance plans for 5,700 new homes in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, branding it “an obstacle to peace”.
The move is part of an acceleration in settlement expansion by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government — in which ultranationalist settlers hold key roles — and brings the total of new housing units advanced this year to more than 13,000, almost triple last year’s figure.
The international community regards the settlements in the West Bank — territory Palestinians seek as the heart of a future state but which Israel has occupied since 1967 — as illegal, and a US state department spokesman said the US was “deeply troubled” by the news.
“The United States opposes such unilateral actions that make a two-state solution more difficult to achieve,” the spokesman added.
Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group that monitors the settlements, said the number of new housing units in the West Bank announced this year was already the highest since it began collecting systematic data in 2012.
“The Israeli government is pushing us at an unprecedented pace towards the full annexation of the West Bank,” the group warned in a statement.
The Israeli decision to press on with the new housing units comes at a time of inflamed tensions in the West Bank. Violence in the territory has surged since Netanyahu’s government took office in December, fuelling fears that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be heading for a broader escalation.
This year is already on course to be the bloodiest in the West Bank for more than a decade, with Israeli forces conducting near-nightly raids in the territory following a spate of attacks by Palestinians on Israelis in spring last year.
According to the latest UN data, Israeli forces have killed 114 Palestinians in the West Bank this year and Palestinians have killed 16 Israelis. The rate of attacks by settlers on Palestinians and their property has also jumped 16 per cent compared with last year, according to UN data.
Over the past week there has been a renewed cycle of violence, which began after Israeli forces killed seven Palestinians and injured more than 90 in a raid on the city of Jenin, which escalated into a multi-hour gun battle with militants.
The following day, two Palestinian gunmen shot dead four Israelis and injured another four at a petrol station near the Jewish settlement of Eli.
That shooting, in turn, was followed by a series of rampages by settlers through Palestinian towns in the West Bank, such as Turmus Ayya, where houses and cars were torched.
The Palestinian foreign ministry on Tuesday accused Israel of “rewarding settler terrorism” by advancing the new housing units.