US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, told Tel Aviv on Wednesday that there is "no need" to evacuate its illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Friedman made the comments during a meeting with several settler leaders, including the chairman of Har Hebron Regional Council Yochai Damari. The council provides municipal services to illegal Israeli settlers living in the South Hebron Hills, in the south of the occupied West Bank.
The meeting was arranged by Israeli MK Yehudah Glick, a member of the right-wing Likud party that currently leads the Israeli parliament. Glick relayed Friedman's comments to the Times of Israel saying that the ambassador was "very explicit" in his remark regarding illegal Israeli settlements. The Times of Israel added that "a spokeswoman for the [US] embassy declined to comment."
Friedman has a long history of support for Israel's illegal settlement movement. In May it was revealed that Friedman was president of pro-settler organisation Friends of Beit El Yeshiva when it donated 372,000 shekels ($93,000) to Komemiut. Komemiut is a right-wing group dedicated to turning Israel into a Jewish-religious state and advocates for the weakening of "secular institutions" such as the media. It also contains leaders who consistently support the transfer or expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank.
The US ambassador has also frequently promised settlers that they will not be forced to leave their homes, telling a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organisations in February that illegal settlers in the West Bank "are not going anywhere". It is also known that Friedman's daughter, Talia Friedman, moved to Israel in August 2017.
In May, Friedman stoked controversy when he was photographed posing with a poster in which Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock were replaced with a Jewish Temple. The incident was lambasted by Arab-Israeli MK Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List, who responded to the image on Twitter by saying "and this madman wants to bring peace good thing you didn't put the embassy there!" Friedman's actions were also denounced by Al-Azhar, the leading Sunni institution in the Arab and Muslim world, which described the act as "irresponsible behaviour in the context of the continued Zionist-US provocations of the feelings of more than 1.5 billion Muslims around the world."
Israel has maintained a policy of illegal settlement in the West Bank since it occupied the territory during the Six Day War of 1967. Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem states that, as of the end of 2015, there were 127 Israeli government-sanctioned settlements in the West Bank (not including occupied East Jerusalem and Hebron). This was in addition to 100 non-recognised outposts and 15 Israeli neighbourhoods inside the Jerusalem Municipality. These settlements are inhabited by approximately half a million illegal settlers, who remain under the protection of Israeli domestic law despite their location in the West Bank. Such settlements have been deemed illegal under international law, which prevents the transfer of civilian populations into occupied territories.