Israel's settlement approvals hit record high: watchdog

Jerusalem (AFP) –

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Israel has approved over 12,000 West Bank homes in 2020, a record high for Jewish building in occupied Palestinian territory, settlement watchdog Peace Now said Thursday.

The announcement came after a defence ministry planning committee approved plans for 4,948 more homes during a two-day meeting held Wednesday and Thursday, Peace Now said.

The latest approvals come less than a month after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements to normalise relations with Israel, which in return pledged to freeze its plans to annex swathes of the West Bank.

"These approvals make 2020 the highest year on record in terms of units in settlement plans promoted since Peace Now began recording in 2012," Peace Now said in a statement.

"The count so far is 12,159 units approved in 2020," it added, noting that the committee might hold another round of approvals before the end of the year.

"While de jure annexation may be suspended, the de facto annexation of settlement expansion is clearly continuing," Peace Now said.

"These recent approvals put to rest any speculation about a de facto settlement freeze."

The Palestinians and neighbouring Jordan on Wednesday condemned the recent approvals.

Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said Israel had exploited improving relations in the Gulf and "blind support from the Trump administration".

US President Donald Trump sees the Gulf accords as part of his broader initiative for Middle East peace.

But a controversial plan he unveiled in January gave US blessing to Israeli annexation of large chunks of the West Bank, including the settlements, communities considered illegal under international law.

Israel agreed to delay those plans under its normalisation deal with the UAE, something Emirati officials have cited in response to Arab and Muslim criticism.

The two Gulf countries were only the third and fourth Arab states to normalise relations with Israel, following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, and Netanyahu has said he sees others following.

The Gulf agreements broke with years of Arab League policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which made its resolution a precondition for normalising ties with Israel.

Excluding annexed east Jerusalem, more than 450,000 Israelis live in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, alongside some 2.7 million Palestinians.