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Israeli Cabinet minister rejects US criticism on settlements

Israel's finance minister says that his ultranationalist party would push to legalize all wildcat settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank, a move likely to draw international outcry and condemnation

Via AP news wire
Tuesday 14 February 2023 12:46 GMT

Israel's finance minister Tuesday brushed off American criticism of new settlement construction in the West Bank and vowed to legalize dozens of wildcat settlement outposts in the occupied territory.

Bezalel Smotrich spoke less than a day after the U.S. said it strongly opposed Israeli plans to build extensively in West Bank settlements and retroactively legalize nine outposts.

Smotrich, a religious ultranationalist settler, said that he and his allies were “committed to removing completely the restrictions on building in Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

Smotrich, a longtime settler leader, has been promised authority over the defense body responsible for West Bank settlement construction as part of his coalition agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He said once he receives those powers, he would act to “normalize” life for more than 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

The territory is governed under military laws. Smotrich said that he would transfer authority over Israeli civilians to government ministries — effectively annexing West Bank territory. Such a move would draw widespread international condemnation.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for a future independent state.

Most of the international community considers Israeli settlements illegal and obstacles to peace. Some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

On Sunday, Netanyahu's Cabinet unanimously authorized the legalization of nine settlement outposts and said it would soon approve additional construction in existing settlements. Smotrich said some 10,000 new homes are to be approved.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “deeply troubled” by the Israeli decision but gave no indication the U.S. would take action against Israel.

Smotrich responded to Blinken’s rebuke saying the government has “clarified our position to the Americans” and that “disagreements are allowed, even between friends.”

Ultranationalists who oppose Palestinian statehood comprise a large part of Israel’s new government, which has put settlement construction at the top of its priorities.

The Israeli settlement plans have also drawn condemnation from Israel's Arab neighbors Jordan and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the EU and several other European allies.

On Tuesday, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt condemned Israel's plans.

“The Israeli settlement policy on occupied land is contrary to international law and must be stopped,” Huitfeldt told Norwegian news agency NTB.

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