Washington warns Israel against settlement expansion

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Washington warns Israel against settlement expansion

The Trump administration on Thursday warned Israel that the expansion of settlements "may not be helpful" towards the peace process with the Palestinians, despite its previous avowedly pro-Israel tone.

"While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal," the White House said.

But it also said the administration had not "taken an official position on settlement activity."

President Donald Trump had previously indicated that he would be more supportive of settlements, choosing as his ambassador pro-settler lawyer David Friedman, who also wants to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, anathema to Palestinians.

Trump had also roundly criticized his predecessor Barack Obama for not using the US veto on a UN Security Council vote condemning settlements in December.

The new US administration's stance appeared to have encouraged Israel to increase its settlement building, with the government announcing the construction of more than 5,000 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Obama left office.

The White House statement comes two weeks ahead of a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on Thursday reiterated a promise to build a new settlement for the residents of an unauthorized West Bank community that was evacuated this week.

Israel's top court ruled in 2014 that the hilltop outpost of Amona, with 280 residents and located some 20 kilometres north of Jerusalem, was built on land belonging to Palestinians and had to be vacated by February 8.

The last protesters against the evacuation, who had been holding out in a synagogue, were removed on Thursday.

Netanyahu's promised outpost for Amona residents would be the first time since 1992 that the government officially established a new settlement in the West Bank, according to a spokeswoman from the human rights group Peace Now.

The settlements have in the meantime grown through the expansion of already established outposts or through retroactive legalization.

A bill to retroactively legalize settlements in the West Bank - sparing them the same fate as Amona - is currently winding its way through the Knesset.

Amona was specifically excluded from the bill as a political compromise in order to increase its chances of passing.

"We lost the battle over Amona, but we are winning the war for the land of Israel," said Education Minister Naftali Bennett, one of the bill's backers, on Wednesday. "We knew that we were going to war against all the odds, but we didn't give up," he added.

However, even with the exclusion of Amona, the bill, if passed, is unlikely to make it past Israel's Supreme Court.

All settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories are considered illegal under international law, though the Israeli government disagrees.

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  • Reporting by: Miranda Lee Murray in Tel Aviv and Gretel Johnston in Washington
  • Editing by: Helen Livingstone, +61 2 9322 8065, <international@dpa.com>

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