US urges Israeli settlement halt as Jewish fund plans major investment in West Bank construction
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said on Thursday at a press conference that the US considers that it is "critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a two-state solution."
The statement comes on the heels of an announcement made earlier this week by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), saying it would approve a new policy allowing it to officially purchase land in the West Bank.
The JNF is a non-governmental organization founded in 1901 to purchase land in historic Palestine for Jews.
Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, it has refrained from direct involvement in buying land in the West Bank, partly due to the objections of American donors.
This major policy shift could funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into the expansion of settlements in Palestinian territory, just as the administration of President Joe Biden begins to roll back the policies of the former Trump administration, which aimed to legitimize Israeli settlements.
According to a draft of the policy, the JNF will operate in the West Bank to develop settlements through education, forestation, environmental protection, and other projects.
Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave apparent approval to the expansion of Israeli settlements in November 2019, when he declared that the Trump administration would no longer abide by a 1978 State Department legal opinion that the settlements were "inconsistent with international law".
The Trump administration also halted humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, and this was also addressed by Price, who said that the US State Department under President Joe Biden intends “to provide assistance to the benefit of all Palestinians, including Palestinian refugees.”
Trump pulled funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in September 2018, saying the United States would no longer recognise Palestinians as a displaced population, and adding that future US aid would be contingent on the Palestinians "making a deal" with Israel.
"We are in the process of determining how to move forward with the resumption of that assistance consistent with US law and with our interests," Price said in reference to the resumption of aid to the Palestinans, signalling a break with Trump policy.
Change in Jerusalem policy?
In 2017, the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moved the US embassy to Israel there.
Palestinian East Jerusalem was captured by Israel in 1967 and annexed shortly afterwards in violation of international law. Most countries do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and maintain embassies in Tel Aviv instead.
While the Biden administration says it intends to keep the US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, Price hinted at a change in policy, saying that the status of the city should be the subject of negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
"The ultimate status of Jerusalem will need to be resolved by the parties in the context of direct negotiations," he said.
The Biden administration's statements come as Israel faces possible war crimes charges as the International Criminal Court approved a request by its Chief Prosecutor to open legal proceedings against Israel earlier this month.
Price earlier said that the US opposed the ICC's attempts to prosecute Israel for possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories.
"We do not believe the Palestinians qualify as a sovereign state, and therefore are not qualified to obtain membership as a state or participate as a state in international organizations, entities, or conferences including the ICC," he said in a statement earlier this month.