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Israel turns swathes of occupied West Bank into 'nature reserves'

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's defence minister Wednesday announced the creation of seven nature reserves in the occupied West Bank as part of efforts to maintain Israeli control, weeks before a general election.

The sites are all located in what is know as Area C of the West Bank that includes the strategic Jordan Valley, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in September he planned to annex.

Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, whose rightwing New Right party draws much of its support from Jewish settlers, said last week that the territory belonged to Israel and his goal was to annex it "within a short time".

In his latest move, Bennett said the Israeli-run reserves would be "under the responsibility" of the Jewish state's Nature and Parks Authority.

He also announced the expansion of 12 existing West Bank sites managed by the Israeli authority, including Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves between 1947 and 1956.

Bennett is seeking re-election in the March 2 elections, as part of a far-right alliance.

The Palestinian Authority was quick to condemn the latest move, accusing Bennett of "erecting a new colonial umbrella to fight the Palestinian presence in those areas".

The Palestinian foreign ministry said it would lodge complaints over the "dangerous announcement" at the United Nations and in international courts.

According to Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now, the designated reserves total about 13,000 acres (5,300 hectares), some 40 percent of it under private Palestinian ownership.

Under Israel laws regulating nature reserves, Palestinians would be forbidden to cultivate their own land, the NGO's Hagit Ofran said.

"If it's a nature reserve, then you can uproot their (Palestinians') trees and tell them they need a special permit for any agricultural activity," she told AFP.

"It will be easier now to evict Palestinians from there."

Most of the international community consider settlements on occupied Palestinian land to be illegal.

Washington, however, bucked the consensus in November when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said settlements were "not, per se, inconsistent with international law".

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