Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said the decision to appropriate about 1,000 acres of West Bank land, criticized by Palestinians and the U.S., was a response to the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the area in June.
The Defense Ministry yesterday declared the area south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem state land, a designation that under Israeli law allows for settlement construction. The Palestinian Authority, U.S. State Department and the U.K. condemned the move as detrimental to the peace process.
“This was always the Zionist answer to Arab terrorism for over 100 years,” Bennett, whose Jewish Home party opposes the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said on Israel Radio today. “Now as always, the world doesn’t like that we are building.”
The move comes less than a week after Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip reached a cease-fire agreement to end more than seven weeks of fighting. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in July that the conflict showed it was too risky for Israel to trade more land for peace with the Palestinians.
Israel blamed the killing of the kidnapped Israeli teenagers on militants of the Hamas group that dominates Gaza. Along with the suspected revenge murder of a Palestinian youth, the deaths added to tensions as weeks of militant rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli air strikes escalated into war.
“This decision, which leads to a further deterioration of the situation, must be blocked,” Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement. Construction in the Gush Etzion region would be subject to an approval process that could take years.
Yesterday’s step is counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of achieving a two-state solution, the New York Times reported, citing a U.S. State Department official it didn’t identify. A spokesman for Netanyahu had no comment on the decision.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who led Israel’s failed negotiations with the Palestinians earlier this year, also criticized the government’s decision, even while agreeing with its stance that the Gush Etzion settlement bloc be retained by Israel in any final peace deal.
“This wasn’t the right decision, it weakens the state of Israel and hurts our security,” Livni told Israel Radio. Any declaration of possible settlement building turns areas such as Gush Etzion “that lie within the consensus both at home and abroad, into areas of controversy.”
The land-for-peace premise underlies decades of diplomatic efforts to reach a two-state solution. The Palestinians say Israel’s settlement construction and its demands to retain control over security in the area undermine their right to a viable state. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.
Disagreements over the borders of the future Palestinian state and the extent of an Israeli pullout contributed to the collapse of U.S.-sponsored negotiations talks in April.
“As far as we know, this declaration is unprecedented in its scope since the 1980s and can dramatically change the reality in the Gush Etzion and the Bethlehem area,” the Israeli non-government organization Peace Now, which monitors settlement growth, said in a statement on yesterday’s decision.
Ahmad Lafi, mayor of the nearby town of Surif, told the official Palestinian Wafa news agency the land appropriated by Israel belongs to Arab families.