Israeli Cabinet minister rejects US criticism on settlements

Israel’s finance minister on Tuesday dismissed Washington’s criticism of new settlement construction in the West Bank, promising to double down and legalize dozens of wildcat outposts in the occupied territory.

Bezalel Smotrich reaffirmed his commitment to expand Israeli authority in the lands that the Palestinians seek for a future state — less than a day after the US expressed opposition to the move.

On Tuesday, Europe’s top diplomats also condemned Israel’s plans to build thousands of new homes in the West Bank and retroactively legalize nine outposts, saying they are “deeply troubled” and “strongly oppose these unilateral actions.”

The joint statement from the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy and the UK echoed the American condemnation, with no sign they would take any action against Israel.

Smotrich, a religious ultranationalist settler, appeared defiant on Tuesday. He and his right-wing allies, he said, remain “committed to removing completely the restrictions on building in Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

Smotrich said the Israeli government has “clarified (its) position to the Americans.”

“Disagreements are allowed, even between friends,” he added.

In a contentious coalition deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Smotrich authority over the defense body responsible for planning for both settlements and Palestinian construction in parts of the West Bank where Israel maintains civilian control.

Once he receives those powers, Smotrich has vowed to “normalize” life for more than 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, erasing the differences between living in a settlement and within Israel’s internationally recognized border and effectively annexing West Bank territory. Such a move would draw widespread global condemnation.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war.

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

On Sunday, after a surge in violence in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu’s Cabinet unanimously authorized the legalization of nine settlement outposts and said it would soon approve 10,000 new homes in existing settlements.

Ultranationalists who oppose Palestinian statehood comprise a large part of Israel’s new government, which has declared settlement construction a top priority.

Israel’s newest settlement plans have also drawn condemnation from Israel’s Arab neighbors Jordan and Egypt, as well as Saudi Arabia.

On Tuesday, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt also joined the chorus of criticism.

“The Israeli settlement policy on occupied land is contrary to international law and must be stopped,” Huitfeldt said.

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