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U.S. criticizes Israeli settlement expansion, demolitions

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been looking to improve its relations with the White House. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Ruth Eglash and Carol Morello, The Washington Post, July 28, 2016

JERUSALEM — The Israeli government’s plans to build new units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and a spate of home demolitions in Palestinian areas over the past week have drawn sharp criticism from the Obama administration.

Israel “is systematically undermining the prospects for a two-state solution” with the Palestinians, State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Wednesday.

“We strongly oppose settlement activity, which is corrosive to the cause of peace,” the statement said.

Separately, Kirby also said Secretary of State John F. Kerry will travel to Paris for a meeting Saturday with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. The purpose of their talks, the spokesman said, is to explore whether it is possible to “make progress on creating conditions where a two-state solution can be realized.”

The strongly worded State Department statement was widely seen as a warning to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, which is renegotiating a multibillion-dollar military aid package with the United States and has been looking to improve its relations with the White House.

Netanyahu’s office did not respond to the statement.

“We are witnessing a signal from the Americans to Netanyahu that they do not like what they see,” said Hagit Ofran, director of the Settlement Watch team for the left-wing Israeli human rights organization Peace Now.

“The fact that there are elections in the U.S. might be perceived in Israel as an opportunity to get away with things, but this is the Americans saying, ‘We are still watching you,’ ” Ofran said.

Kirby’s statement focused on Israeli government plans to build 770 units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. The international community views Gilo as Palestinian territory occupied by Israel.

Plans to build in Gilo have been a point of contention between Israel and the Obama administration. In March 2010, during a visit by Vice President Biden, a tender issued for the construction of a housing project in Gilo sparked a mini-crisis between the two allies. Additional construction announcements seem to have been made at strategic points over the years, such as when Israel released the first batch of long-held Palestinian prisoners as part of the now-defunct U.S.-brokered peace process in 2014.

“By condemning building in Gilo, the administration repeats its initial mistake in the peace process. It is creating a demand that no Israeli government can meet and no Palestinian leader can ignore,” said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who is a member of parliament from the ruling coalition.

“Nobody in Israel views Gilo as a settlement, but once the administration demands a freeze in Gilo, then no Palestinian leader can demand anything less,” he said. “Gilo is a deal-breaker.”

In its statement, the State Department also criticized Israeli plans to build 323 units in East Jerusalem, expand settlements in the West Bank and retroactively legalize an Israeli outpost near Ramallah.

“We have been seeing more and more settlements built in the past few years and increased demolitions of Palestinian property recently,” said Jamal Dajani, director of communications for Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.

Dajani was referring to demolitions of a dozen Palestinian homes this week in East Jerusalem. The demolitions, which Israel said were intended to weed out illegal buildings, left many families homeless. The Palestinians said building permits are often rejected for residents of these areas.

“We support the State Department’s statement,” Dajani said. “It is about time we hear this from the U.S. The whole international community is condemning these Israeli actions. They are a violation of the Geneva convention, which specifically prohibits the occupying power from transferring people in the areas it is occupying.”

The State Department’s statement also raised concerns about “increased demolitions of Palestinian structures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”

Israel has demolished more than 650 Palestinian structures in those areas this year, more than in all of 2015, the statement said.

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department. Morello reported from Washington.

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