Israeli government approves over 200 new settlement homes in occupied West Bank
Israel has approved plans for more than 200 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, adding to a sharp increase in settlement projects so far this year, an Israeli NGO said on Thursday.
Israel's government has given the green light for the plans for at least 229 homes to move forward and they are now at various stages in the technical process, said Hagit Ofran, a spokeswoman for settlement watchdog Peace Now.
Settlement building projects must pass through five administrative stages before winning final approval from Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon.
There was no immediate response from Israel's defence ministry.
Peace Now said this week that the number of West Bank settlements Israel plans to build more than tripled in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period last year.
Between January and March, projects for 674 housing units passed at least one of the steps in the planning approval process, up from 194 in the first quarter of 2015, it said.
The new plans bring the total to at least 903.
The settlements are considered illegal under international law and are seen as major stumbling blocks to peace efforts since they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.
"This policy is killing the two-state solution," Ofran told AFP.
Settlements blocking peace
Approximately 400,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank. The United States and the European Union, among others, have strongly criticised Israeli settlement construction as it undermines international efforts to reach a two-state solution.
Israel walked out of the US-mediated peace talks in April 2014 when Palestinian political factions Fatah and Hamas, based in the West Bank and Gaza Strip respectively, declared a unity government in response to continued illegal settlement building by Israel in occupied areas.
Months later, an Israeli onslaught on Gaza killed around 2,200 Palestinians, at least 66 percent of whom were civilians. Meanwhile, 72 Israelis, mainly soldiers, also died.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pre-election rhetoric in an attempt to garner right-wing votes last year also cast doubt on his commitment to achieving the peace process.
Frustration over a lack of progress towards a solution sparked intercommunal violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
The West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip came under Israeli occupation following the Six-Day war in 1967.
Israeli forces left Gaza in 2005, but it came under an Israeli-enforced blockade in 2007 after Hamas, which is considered by Israel to be a terrorist organisation, came to power in the coastal enclave.
Palestinians want all three territories as part of their proposal for a united state of Palestine, with East Jerusalem serving as its capital. However, Israel wants to keep up its annexation of East Jerusalem while seeking international recognition for an undivided Jerusalem as its own capital.