Israel confirmed on Thursday it was planning to appropriate a large tract of fertile land in the West Bank, close to Jordan, a move likely to exacerbate tensions with Western allies and already drawing international condemnation.
In an email sent to Reuters, COGAT, a unit of the Defence Ministry, said the political decision to seize the territory had been taken and "the lands are in the final stages of being declared state lands."
The appropriation, first reported by Army Radio, covers 154 hectares (380 acres) in the Jordan Valley close to Jericho, an area where Israel already has many settlement farms built on land Palestinians seek for a state.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement on Wednesday denouncing the land seizure, which is the largest appropriation in the West Bank since August 2014.
"Settlement activities are a violation of international law and run counter to the public pronouncements of the Government of Israel supporting a two-state solution to the conflict," Ban said in a statement.
The land, already partly farmed by Jewish settlers from Vered Yeriho in an area under Israeli civilian and military control, is situated near the northern tip of the Dead Sea. No Palestinians currently live there in the area, which is north of Kibbutz Almog.
Palestinian officials denounced the seizure on Wednesday, with Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, calling it a violation of international law.
"Israel is stealing land specially in the Jordan Valley under the pretext it wants to annex it," she told Reuters. "This should be a reason for a real and effective intervention by the international community to end such a flagrant and grave aggression which kills all chances of peace."
The United States, whose ambassador angered Israel this week with criticism of its West Bank policy, said late on Wednesday it was strongly opposed to any move that accelerates settlement expansion.
"We believe they're fundamentally incompatible with a two-state solution and call into question, frankly, the Israeli government's commitment to a two-state solution," Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Israel has not built settlements in E1, with construction considered a "red line" by the United States and the EU. It could potentially split the West Bank, cutting Palestinians off from East Jerusalem, which they seek for their capital.
"This is the third time they demolished my house and every time I rebuilt it, this time also I will rebuild it and I am not leaving here. If we leave they will turn the place into a closed military zone," said Saleem Jahaleen, whose home was razed.
Israeli officals did not respond to requests for comment on the demolitions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week the EU was building illegally in the area.
"They're building without authorization, against the accepted rules, and there's a clear attempt to create political realities," he told the foreign media.
The issue of the lands in the Jericho area and in E1 (the area between Ma'ale Adumim and Jerusalem) has been raised for discussion in the Knesset in recent days. The Knesset's Subcommittee on Defense and Foreign Affairs heard serious complaints against the Civil Administration's enforcement policies.
MK Moti Yogev (Bayit Yehudi) claimed during the discussion that "there's a serious reality of illegal Arab construction, hundreds and thousands of structures, on state lands in Area C of Judea and Samaria. Simply construction terrorism directed by the Palestinian Authority and intentionally funded by states in the European Union with 110 million euros a year."
Foreign Ministry representative said in response that officials in the ministry believe the European Union is preparing a lawsuit against Israel over the demolition of the illegal structures funded by the EU.
The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
There are now about 550,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Israeli government and think-tank statistics. About 400,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem and 2.7 million in West Bank.
Israel is hoping that in any final agreement with the Palestinians it will be able to keep large settlement blocs close to Jerusalem and the Israeli border, as well as in the Jordan Valley, for security and agricultural purposes. The Palestinians are adamantly opposed.
The last round of peace talks broke down in April 2014 and Israeli-Palestinian violence has surged in recent months.
Since the start of October, Palestinian terrorists have killed 28 Israelis in stabbings, car-rammings and shootings. In the same period, at least 148 Palestinians have been killed, 94 of whom were assailants. Most of the others died during violent demonstrations.
Elisha Ben-Kimon contributed to this story.