Israel approved the construction of 300 new settler residences, illegal under international law, in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday. The move is likely to reignite tensions between Palestinians and Jewish settlers.
In a statement issued by Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office, the “immediate construction of 300 housing units” in the Beit El area was ordered alongside the granting of planning approval for another 504 settler homes in occupied areas of East Jerusalem.
The Israeli authorities granted permission for the building of the settlements on the same day as two empty apartment buildings - known as the Draynoff buildings - also in the Beit El area were demolished following a court order.
A court had previously ruled that the apartment blocks had been built “illegally” as land permits had not been granted at the time of their construction.
The demolition followed days of clashes between Jewish settlers and Israeli police, with settlers opposing the destruction of the buildings. Police had to disperse a crowd of about 200 Jewish settlers on Tuesday night with water cannon as they gathered to protest the demolition.
Ten settlers were arrested while six others sustained light injuries as police evicted settlers who had barricaded themselves inside the buildings, Ynet news reported.
Israeli Education Minister and right-wing Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett slammed the demolition, saying he had aired his concerns to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"In the early morning hours I spoke to the prime minister. I demanded that during the day, the government of Israel issue an official message to the High Court that it opposes the destruction of homes, and we're following up on that now," Bennett told the crowd of settlers in Beit El on Tuesday afternoon.
Prime Minister Netanyahu also opposed the demolition of the buildings, AFP reported, but Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said the buildings would most likely be rebuilt as the necessary permits were granted after the court’s original decision.
Earlier in July, the justice minister also announced plans to “legalise” Jewish settlements in the West Bank through the formation of a new committee. Consequently, plans were then drawn up by the Israeli military to grant building permission for 1,065 settlement units in the West Bank.
According to a report released on July 23 by Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now, the plans include building permission for 541 new homes, the “legalisation” of 228 existing homes, and the approval of infrastructure for the construction of a further 296 homes.
Approximately 400,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank in settlements that are largely condemned as being illegal by the international community, which sees settlement building as undermining international efforts to reach a two-state solution.
Germany was quick to criticise the Israeli decision to proceed with settlement construction as a violation of international law in a statement on Tuesday.
"The construction of settlements in occupied territories violates international law. This also hinders efforts to revive the peace process and threatens the basis of a two-state solution," the German Foreign Ministry said.
"Precisely now both sides are urgently called to build trust and refrain from unilateral and provocative actions. We warn that such steps would hamper chances for the resumption of peace negotiations," the statement continued.
Prior to his re-election as prime minister in March, Netanyahu vowed to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state in what was seen as a last-ditch attempt to garner right-wing support ahead of elections.
In response to Netanyahu’s election campaign, both the EU and the US expressed concern over the Israeli stance on the two-state solution, with US President Obama warning that Washington will "re-assess" its policies on Israel.
The continuation of illegal Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - which both came under Israeli occupation following the Six-Day war in 1967 - often raises tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and last year resulted in the breaking-off of peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.
Israel walked out of talks after the Palestinian Authority announced the formation of a joint government with Palestinian resistance group Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007. Hamas is deemed by Israel to be a “terrorist” organisation.
The collapse of talks led to a brief war between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2014, which killed over 2,200 Palestinians - mostly civilians. Seventy two Israelis, mostly soldiers, were also killed.