An announcement by Israel that it was appropriating nearly 1000 acres of land in the West Bank, a preparatory step toward further settlement construction, has drawn criticism from the United States and protests from the Palestinian leadership.
The announcement on Sunday, which the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now called the biggest appropriation of West Bank land in 30 years, had been ordered by the government after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the territory in June.
Israel blamed Hamas for the abduction, and a crackdown on the Islamist group in the West Bank led to an escalation of rocket attacks and air strikes across the Gaza Strip border that culminated in a 50-day war that left more than 2000 Palestinians and 73 Israelis dead.
Maj. Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the Israeli military administration in the West Bank, said that authorities had served notice of the land appropriation on Sunday, allowing Palestinians claiming ownership of the tracts 45 days to appeal the decision.
The U.S. has opposed expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, arguing that it undermined prospects for a viable Palestinian state in the territory as part of a future peace agreement.
“We urge the government of Israel to reverse this decision,” a State Department official said, calling the land appropriation “counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.”
Inbar said the military administration was carrying out a directive of “the political echelon,” and had declared nearly 1000 acres as “state land” after determining that the areas were not privately owned.
The land is near a cluster of Israeli settlements south of Bethlehem, known as the Etzion Bloc, where the three Israeli teenagers were abducted, and adjacent to several Palestinian villages.
The mayor of the town of Surif told the Palestinian news agency WAFA that Israeli military authorities had posted notices of seizure of land in his community and two neighboring villages. He said the land was planted with olive and forest trees and belonged to several local families.
The step was condemned by the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“This decision will lead to more instability,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas. “This will only inflame the situation after the war in Gaza.”
Yariv Oppenheimer, the head of Peace Now, called the land expropriation a “stab in the back” of Abbas, showing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has no diplomatic horizon.”
Netanyahu has suggested in recent days that the current upheavals and shifting regional alignments in the Middle East could produce new diplomatic opportunities for Israel.
Settler leaders welcomed the government move, saying that the appropriated land would serve for a major expansion of the adjacent settlement of Gvaot. Last year the government invited bids for building 1,000 housing units at the site.