JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s government coupled its compliance with a Supreme Court order to remove buildings from a neighborhood on the outskirts of the Beit El settlement with the announcement of new construction in several West Bank areas.
The latter action drew a sharp rebuke from the United States and others. Meanwhile, the settlement movement appeared to be gearing up to fight the evacuation of five apartment buildings that are home to about 30 families in the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El.
On Wednesday, Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias said that in addition to the 300 housing units promised to Beit El in exchange for relocating the apartment buildings, he would approve 551 more reportedly in Ariel, Maale Adumim, Adam, Efrat and Kiryat Arba. His announcement came hours after the Knesset rejected a bill that would have retroactively recognized settlement outposts such as Ulpana.
The Obama administration "does not accept the legitimacy" of the plans for up to 851 new housing units for West Bank settlements, the U.S. State Department said.
"We’re very clear that continued Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank undermines peace efforts and contradicts Israeli commitments and obligations, including the 2003 ‘road map,’ " State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday. "Our position on settlements remains unchanged. We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. And we want to see these parties – both parties, rather — refrain from these kinds of actions and to get back into negotiations."
The United Nations official tasked with the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, in a statement by his office called the announcement "deeply troubling" and reiterated that any settlement construction in the West Bank violated international law.
“All settlement construction – whether on private Palestinian land or elsewhere in occupied Palestinian territory – is contrary to international law,” said the statement issued by the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.
Senior Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said the announcement "undermines all efforts to revive the peacemaking between the two sides."
The president of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said his organization was "profoundly disappointed" by the decision to build more houses in the West Bank, pointing out that some of the settlements proposed to receive the housing are outside of major settlement blocs. Ben-Ami, however, did praise the government’s decision to enforce the Israeli Supreme Court’s order to remove the contested buildings from the Ulpana neighborhood.
During a news conference Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directly addressed West Bank settlers, calling them his "brothers and sisters."
"There is no government that supports, or will support, settlement more than my government," he said. "I also say that there is no government that has withstood such heavy pressures, which could have hurt settlement, and it must be understood that ours is a very complex diplomatic, national and legal environment. And in this complex reality, one must navigate wisely, sagaciously and responsibly."
Netanyahu added that his government "will continue to strengthen settlement and we will continue to strengthen democracy in the State of Israel."
In the Knesset, 69 lawmakers voted against the measure to recognize settlement outposts, while 22 for it in the preliminary reading. The legislation would have retroactively legalized buildings built on contested land if the owner did not challenge the construction within four years. The Ulpana apartment buildings must be evacuated by July 1, according to the Supreme Court order.
No government ministers voted for the bill; Netanyahu’s office had said Monday that ministers who voted for the bill would lose their jobs.
In his news conference, Netanyahu discussed the bill’s defeat and its significance.
"Moving homes from their location, even if it is only five homes, is certainly not an action that this government rejoices in doing," he said. "But the court ruled as it did and we honor the decisions of the judicial system."
Meanwhile, supporters and residents of Ulpana reportedly have started to plan for the upcoming evacuation, setting up tents in the community as well as taking delivery of dozens of tires, according to one news report.
Posters calling for large demonstrations to prevent equipment from removing the buildings have been posted in Beit El, according to reports.