JERUSALEM - Israel announced on Sunday that it will expropriate 400 hectares (988 acres) of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, angering the Palestinians and alarming Israeli peace campaigners.
The move to seize the land, in the Bethlehem area in the south of the territory, is the biggest of its kind in three decades. "On the instructions of the political echelon - 4,000 dunams at Gevaot (settlement) is declared as state land," said the army department charged with administering civil affairs in occupied territory, laying down a 45-day period for any appeal.
It said the move stemmed from political decisions taken after the June killing of three Israeli teenagers snatched from a roadside in the same area, known to Israelis as the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. Israel has named three Palestinians from the southern West Bank city of Hebron behind the murders. The Etzion settlements council welcomed Sunday's announcement and said it was the prelude to the expansion of the current Gevaot settlement.
It "paves the way for the new city of Gevaot", it said in a statement. "The goal of the murderers of those three youths was to sow fear among us, to disrupt our daily lives and to call into doubt our right to the land," it said. "Our response is to strengthen settlement." The existing settlement of Gevaot consists of only 10 families. Haaretz newspaper said construction at the site had been on the agenda since 2000 and last year the government invited bids for the building of 1,000 new homes there. In an angry reaction to the announcement, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat called for diplomatic action against Israel.
"The Israeli government is committing various crimes against the Palestinian people and their occupied land," he told AFP. "The international community should hold Israel accountable as soon as possible for its crimes and raids against our people in Gaza and the ongoing Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policy of constant settlement expansion on land the Palestinians claim for a future state is deemed illegal by the European Union and an "obstacle to peace" by the United States and staunchly opposed by both.
However, Israel announced no new development during its 50-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip when it was focused on combating cross-border rocket fire and growing disquiet in the international community over the high death toll of Palestinian civilians. "Today's announcement clearly represents Israel's deliberate intent to wipe out any Palestinian presence on the land and to wilfully impose a de facto one-state solution," senior Palestine Liberation official Hanan Ashrawi said. Some 550,000 Israelis live among 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and occupied east Jerusalem, territory that the Jewish state captured in the 1967 six-day war.