Israel approves 850 new settler homes in occupied West Bank, ahead of Biden inauguration
"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has directed that plans be advanced for the construction of about 800 units in Judea and Samaria," a statement for the premier's office said, using the biblical terms for the occupied West Bank.
Some 500 housing units are expected to be approved in the settlements of Itamar, Beit El, Shavei Shomron, Oranit and Givat Ze'ev, according to local media. A further 250 units will be approved in Nofei Nehemia outpost and 100 in the settlement of Tal Menashe, reports added.
"We're here to stay. We're continuing to build the Land of Israel!" Netanyahu wrote on Facebook on Monday.
Netanyahu's order to advance settlement construction is not final, with the process having to clear several bureaucratic phases and possible legal challenges from anti-occupation groups before any construction begins.
Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, who looks to unseat Netanyahu in March, called the settlement announcement an "irresponsible step" that would spark a "battle" with the new US administration.
"The Biden administration has not yet taken office and the government is already leading us into an unnecessary confrontation," he tweeted.
Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, appeared to link the decision to the upcoming Knesset elections.
"Even during elections, the national interest needs to be maintained. A sane government doesn't start an unnecessary battle with a new American president," he said.
The Peace Now settlement watchdog group also slammed the move, describing it as "illegal land grabs".
"As Donald Trump's term in office comes to an end, we've recently seen [...] final attempt to promote land grabs and change the reality on the ground in the West Bank, before an adult once again assumes the seat of the President of the United States," the group said in a statment.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank are deemed illegal under international law, as they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population to the area it controls.
Trump's administration has so far provided unprecedented support to Israel, including abandoning a decades-old US policy of opposing settlements.
Biden, who will be sworn in on 20 January, has pledged a more even-handed approach, vowing to restore aid to the Palestinians that was cut off by Trump and to revive peace negotiations.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967 and its settlements in the territories are deemed illegal by the international community.
While expanding its settler population on Palestinian land, Israel continues to demolish Palestinian homes.
Israeli authorities regularly tear down houses built by Palestinians on their own lands in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, allegeding they are built "without construction permits".
However according to a UN study, such permits are "virtually impossible" to obtain from Israel, resulting in a housing shortage for Palestinians.
There are currently some 450,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, living among an estimated 2.8 million Palestinians.