As US Secretary of State John Kerry increases his efforts to revive the moribund peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israeli government is pushing ahead with the expansion of a number of illegal settlements. Media reports reveal that the expansion was approved by ex-Defence Minister Ehud Barak before the general election earlier this year.
The settlement to have the largest number of new units is Itamar, which is built on land belonging to the Palestinian villages of Beit Foreek and Owarta to the south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank. Work on 675 new housing units is to resume there.
Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said that the move comes as Israeli settlers claim that the government is imposing a "silent freeze" on settlement construction. The settlers allege that construction permits are being denied without the official approval of the government.
Nevertheless, settlers' leaders welcomed the expansions plans. Shomron Regional Council, which covers Itamar settlement, said: "Samaria [West Bank] has recorded an impressive 10 per cent annual growth rate and provides homes for thousands of young couples, both secular and religious." The council did not explain how "secular" settlers could use religious texts to justify their occupation of the land.
Israel's Peace Now movement condemned the settlement expansion and criticised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policy. "Netanyahu has decided to change the rules and ruin any chance of reviving talks," said a spokesperson. "The government has become addicted to the construction of settlements that will not remain in Israel under any agreement. It will fall to Israel's citizens to pay the diplomatic and financial cost."