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Israel will increase settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank

The finance minister was given sweeping powers to speed up construction by scrapping arrangements for 27 years.

Israel’s hardline coalition government approved plans for thousands of new housing units in the occupied West Bank and gave the far-right finance minister sweeping powers to accelerate illegal settlement construction, bypassing measures that have been in place for 27 years.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the move in the cabinet, allowing pro-settlement Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to bypass the six-stage process for settlement construction, which is considered illegal under international law, Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan in West Jerusalem reported.

The deal between Netanyahu and Smotrich had been on the cards for some time, Khan said, enabling the finance minister to “effectively take over the entire illegal settlement-building process.”

Smotrich said: “We will continue to develop settlement projects and strengthen Israeli control over the territory.”

Plans to approve 4,560 housing units in various areas of the West Bank were on the agenda of Israel’s Supreme Planning Council, which will meet next week.

“This is incredibly worrying for the Palestinians,” Khan said. Various groups have expressed deep concern that the entire West Bank may soon fall under Israeli control.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said approving settlement activities was a “dangerous escalation to complete the annexation of the West Bank”.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, said it would only increase tensions in the region, while Fatah warned that “settlers from the Gaza Strip will be removed from the West Bank”.

The Palestinian Authority said it would boycott Monday’s Joint Economic Committee meeting with Israel.

Israel’s hard-line government – which includes the ultra-Orthodox party and a far-right ultra-nationalist religious faction – has placed settlements in the occupied West Bank at the top of its priorities.

Netanyahu’s Likud party has pledged to advance and develop settlements “in all parts of the Land of Israel – in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan Heights and Judea and Samaria” – the biblical names of the occupied West Bank.

The new push has put Israel on a collision course with its closest allies, including the United States, which opposes settlement building in the occupied territories.

Smotrich “now the final and first say whether settlements can be built”, said Khan.

Earlier, illegal settlements within the occupied West Bank came under Israeli military control. There were six phases to the construction process that were overseen by the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli military’s civilian agency that administers the West Bank. The international community or even the Israelis could object at any stage.

“The Americans raised some objections, which stopped the expansion of the settlements. All that has now been taken away,” Khan said, adding that “It is going to be very worrying for the international community”.

Given that much of Smotrich’s support comes from people living in settlements, “he’s unlikely to say no to some kind of expansion,” Khan said.

Since taking office in January, Netanyahu’s coalition has approved 7,000 new housing units, most of them in the occupied West Bank. The government has amended a law to clear the way for settlers to return to four previously evicted settlements.

About 750,000 Israelis live in 250 illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, built on land seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

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