Israel invites bids for 2,500 new settler homes: watchdog

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israel has invited tenders for more than 2,500 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, a watchdog said Wednesday, hours before Joe Biden's swearing-in as US president.

On Sunday, Israel approved 780 new settler homes in the West Bank ahead of a March general election in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to face a fierce challenge from the right from pro-settler candidate Gideon Saar.

Peace Now said the government had now invited tenders for a further 2,112 units in the West Bank and 460 in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to make the capital of a future state.

The watchdog accused the government of a "mad scramble to promote as much settlement activity as possible until the last minutes before the change of the administration in Washington".

"By doing so, Netanyahu is signalling to the incoming president that he has no intention of giving the new chapter in US-Israel relations even one day of grace, nor serious thought to how to plausibly resolve our conflict with the Palestinians," Peace Now said in a statement.

Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, said the Israeli move was equivalent to a "race to eliminate what remains of the two-state solution, while posing more and more obstacles to the new US administration."

Neighbouring Jordan condemned the decision.

"The policy of colonisation... is neither legitimate nor legal," said foreign ministry spokesman Dhaifallah Ali al-Fayez.

"It violates international law and undermines the foundations of peace, as well as efforts to reach a two-state solution," he said.

- Netanyahu facing right-wing challenge -

All Jewish settlements in the West Bank are regarded as illegal by much of the international community.

But Trump's administration, breaking with decades of US policy, declared in late 2019 that Washington no longer considered settlements as being in breach of international law.

Biden has indicated his administration will restore Washington's pre-Trump policy of opposing settlement expansion.

But on Tuesday his nominee for secretary of state said the incoming administration would not reverse Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

"The only way to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution," Antony Blinken said.

Beyond the change in Washington, experts say Netanyahu also has domestic political reasons for pushing settlement expansion.

Electioneering is intensifying ahead of Israel's March 23 vote, in which the country's longest-serving premier faces a new challenge from Saar, a prominent pro-settler voice who split with Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party late last year.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967 and has increasingly expanded the size and number of its settlements there, particularly under Netanyahu's leadership since 2009.

There are currently some 650,000 Jews living in east Jerusalem and the West Bank amid an estimated 3.1 million Palestinians.

Governments around the world see the settlements as one of the biggest obstacles to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.