Fri, 03 Apr 2020

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans on Thursday to build thousands of new homes for Jewish settlers in annexed east Jerusalem, a controversial project unveiled less than two weeks before a general election.

The Palestinians immediately condemned the move as a campaign tactic ahead of the March 2 vote, designed to please nationalist voters who could prove crucial to the prime minister's political survival.

"Netanyahu's attempts to win right-wing Israeli votes... at the expense of Palestinian rights will not bring peace and stability to anyone," said a statement from a spokesperson for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

The Palestinian leader also warned the move "will lead to more tension and violence in the region," in the statement carried by the official WAFA news agency.

Earlier, Netanyahu's office released a video in which the Israeli leader announced: "I have huge news today - we're adding another 2 200 units to Har Homa."

The contentious Har Homa community was first built in 1997, under a previous Netanyahu government.

The initial settlement construction in the area known as Jabal Abu Ghneim to the Palestinians sparked violent protests.

The prime minister boasted Thursday that he had approved the initial build "despite objections from the entire world" and estimated that Har Homa's population would grow from 40 000 to 50 000 when the new units were completed.

Netanyahu also announced approval for a new settlement with several thousands homes in Givat Hamatos, next to the mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Safafa.

That development will include 3 000 homes for Jewish residents and 1 000 "for the Arab residents of Beit Safafa", Netanyahu said.

Settlement watchdog Peace Now called the Givat Hamatos project "a severe blow to the two-state solution," as it would interrupt "territorial continuity between Bethlehem and east Jerusalem."

Israel seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. It later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.

Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank are also considered illegal by most foreign governments and the United Nations.

No mandate?

Netanyahu, 70, will stand trial next month after being indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

He denies wrongdoing but the indictments have complicated his bid to extend his tenure as Israel's longest serving prime minister.

Two elections in April and September last year failed to produce a clear winner.

Recent polls are forecasting another tight race between Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and the centrist Blue and White party led by former military chief Benny Gantz.

Peace Now argued that a caretaker government, like the one Netanyahu is currently leading, does not have the capacity to green light controversial projects that further limit prospects for a future Palestinian state.

"Such a change of policy can't happen in a transitional government without a mandate from the public," the watchdog said.

Netanyahu has previously been accused of making last-minute campaign pledges as a play for vital right-wing support.

Peace Now blasted his latest announcement as "another cynical election trick."

Ahead of the September vote, he vowed to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank if re-elected.

Earlier this week, details emerged about his government's plan to build to 9,000 settler homes in the Atarot area of east Jerusalem.

More than 600 000 Jewish settlers live in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.

US President Donald Trump's Middle East peace gives Israel permission to extend its sovereignty over those communities.

Trump's plan, cheered by both Netanyahu and Gantz, has been rejected by the Palestinians a capitulation to the Jewish state.

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