Israeli government gives settlement minister control over West Bank settlement planning

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli government on Sunday granted a pro-settlement authority authority over planning in the occupied West Bank and lifted red tape on the settlement housing approval process.

The changes make it easier for Israel to expand its settlements on land Palestinians seek as the heart of their future state, at a time when hopes for peace are more distant than ever.

The measure was approved by the government on Sunday as US Under Secretary of State Barbara Leaf, in charge of Middle Eastern affairs, was due to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders during a week-long visit to the region.

The U.S. Department of Public Records subsequently issued a statement expressing concern over Israel’s action. “Consistent with its long-standing policy, the United States opposes such unilateral actions which make it more difficult to achieve a two-state solution and constitute an obstacle to peace,” said spokesman Matthew Miller.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry condemned the Israeli government’s decision and called on the international community to pressure Israel “to take the necessary practical steps to force the Israeli government to end its illegal unilateral actions”.

The government handed Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich control over settlement planning in the West Bank, a condition he had set for joining the government. Authority over planning in the territory, which is under a 56-year military occupation, has traditionally rested with the country’s defense minister. Smotrich is also a minister in the Ministry of Defense.

The decision also removes the need for political-level approvals throughout the planning process, requiring only one initial approval. Critics say it not only normalizes building in the West Bank, but makes it almost as easy as building anywhere in Israel proper. They also say it lifts government scrutiny of sensitive construction projects that can spark international outrage.

A senior Israeli government official said the move would cut red tape and make planning approvals “an efficient two-step process.”

“The decision on construction permission in Judea and Samaria is still taken at the Ministry of Defense and remains subject to the permission of the prime minister,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israeli anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now criticized the decision for “ignoring political and security considerations and perpetuating de facto annexation in the West Bank”. The change comes as an Israeli planning committee said it plans to get some 4,500 West Bank homes approved when it meets next week.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East War, and over the decades that followed built dozens of settlements that are now home to more than 500,000 Jewish settlers living alongside approximately 2, 5 million Palestinians. Most of the international community views the settlements as illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.

Palestinians seek the territory, along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, for a future independent state.

Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian leader, said the Palestinian Authority would boycott a joint economic meeting scheduled for Monday.

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