Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday he was advancing settlement construction in a contentious open area of the West Bank.
The pledge to build several thousand housing units in a region east of Jerusalem known as E1 was the latest promise by Netanyahu to step up settlement activity in the run-up to the country's third parliamentary election in 12 months. The move is a bid by Netanyahu to secure electoral support from West Bank settlers.
“I gave immediate instructions to publish for deposit the plan for construction of 3,500 housing units in E1," Netanyahu said in Jerusalem. “This thing has been delayed six or seven years."
Earlier this week, the Israeli government published construction tenders for over 1,000 homes in an area of east Jerusalem called Givat Hamatos. That came just days after Netanyahu vowed to build thousands of homes in key areas of the city that would cut Palestinian residents off from the West Bank.
E1 is a tract of open land east of Jerusalem that is deemed essential for the viability of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967.
The Palestinians have long feared that construction in E1 would split the West Bank in two and make a contiguous state impossible. Development in E1 has been largely frozen due to U.S. pressure.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's office condemned Netanyahu's decision to advance construction in E1, saying it would violate international law and “push things to the abyss.”
Israeli activist group Peace Now said in a statement that settlement construction in E1 “means that Israel is officially choosing to perpetuate the conflict instead of resolving it.”
Netanyahu told the crowd at the conference organized by a religious nationalist newspaper before asking for their support in next week's election that “everyone understands the magnitude of this announcement.”
Israelis head to the polls for the third time in under a year on March 2 after Netanyahu and his main opponent, former army chief Benny Gantz, twice failed to form a government after April and September's votes. Netanyahu seeks reelection while facing indictment on corruption charges.
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