Israeli authorities have reportedly begun work on the planned expansion of Givat Hamatos settlement in occupied East Jerusalem, in what observers have warned is a critical development in the separation of Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
According to Israeli media reports, construction activity was spotted at the site on Sunday, with Jerusalem councillor and renowned settler supporter Arieh King posting a video on Facebook to celebrate the start of the work. "This is how a settlement starts," King said.
It is the first time since the plan was approved in September 2014 that heavy machinery and tools have been spotted at the site, reported Israel's Channel 10 news.
Some 1,600 new settlement housing units are planned for Givat Hamatos, in what Israeli NGO Ir Amim has called "the newest settlement to be built in East Jerusalem since 1997".
Israel's Construction Ministry claimed that the "drilling work" was routine "ground examinations", but also reiterated that the settlement expansion would indeed be going ahead in due course.
Earlier this year, the Times of Israel reported, the Israeli government announced "a massive plan that would add some 25,000 new homes to Jerusalem, including 15,000 units over the Green Line", including the 1,600 units in Givat Hamatos.
Jerusalem councillor King described the new settlement as intended to "help the connection" between two pre-existing East Jerusalem settlements, Gilo and Har Homa. The new settlement will also be "blocking the connection" between Beit Safafa in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, he added.
Peace Now described the developments as "part of the government's effort to create a de-facto annexation and prevent the possibility for two states on the ground".
"From the beginning of the year, plans for 6,503 housing units were promoted and tenders for 2,858 housing units were issued for West Bank settlements." the NGO noted.
In East Jerusalem, meanwhile, "plans were promoted for 2,069 settler housing units, including inside Palestinian neighbourhoods and a tender for 130 housing units was issued."