Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Tuesday to build 3,500 new settler homes in a super-sensitive area of the occupied West Bank, just a week before a tight general election.
Netanyahu’s controversial statement is the latest in a string of election promises on settlement construction as the premier faces not only a general election but the beginning of a corruption trial.
“I gave immediate instructions for a permit to deposit (plans) for the construction of 3,500 units in E1,” Netanyahu said.
The international community has warned repeatedly that Jewish settlement construction in the E1 corridor, which passes from Jerusalem to Jericho, would slice the West Bank in two and compromise the contiguity of a future Palestinian state.
“We are building Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s outskirts,” Netanyahu said at a conference in remarks relayed by a spokesman.
In 2013, Netanyahu vetoed construction in the E1 corridor in the face of pressure from the United Nations, the European Union and the United States.
The move to advance new homes, which would constitute a new neighbourhood of Maale Adumim, a nearby settlement town, were praised by the Yesha Council, a settler lobby group, which noted that plans for homes there have existed since 2004.
“Advancing the issue will enable broad and strategic construction between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem,” Yesha Council head David Elhayani said in a statement.
But Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, co-director of Jahalin Solidarity, an NGO working to prevent the displacement of Palestinian Bedouin living in the E1 area, said the construction could mean their forced expulsion and constitute a “war crime”.
“If allowed to go ahead, this move will end the potential for a viable, sustainable Palestinian state, and is yet another example of how desperate Bibi (Netanyahu) is to buy votes so as to stay out of prison at the expense of our future,” she said.
On Thursday, Netanyahu announced plans for thousands of new homes for Israelis in annexed east Jerusalem, with critics calling the move a last-minute incentive to nationalist voters ahead of next week’s election.
On Monday, Israeli authorities moved ahead with those plans, inviting tenders for 1,077 housing units for Givat Hamatos, which would be a new settlement neighbourhood.
Settlement watchdog Peace Now said the Givat Hamatos area was “the last point enabling territorial continuity between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem,” saying that the plan to build there was proof Netanyahu was “doing everything to prevent peace”.
Israel seized east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.
Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank are considered illegal by the United Nations and most foreign governments.
Netanyahu, 70, will stand trial next month after being indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
He denies wrongdoing but the indictment has complicated his bid to extend his tenure as Israel’s longest serving prime minister.
Two elections in April and September last year failed to produce a clear winner.
Recent polls are forecasting another tight race between Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and the centrist Blue and White party led by former armed forces chief Benny Gantz.