Israeli authorities on Monday confirmed that they have begun the process of expanding an Israeli settlement in the West Bank city of Hebron, which has been the focus of nearly a year of violence. The Palestinians swiftly condemned the move, saying they would seek international pressure to halt the plan from going forward.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli defense body responsible for civilian affairs in the West Bank, confirmed that permission "to plan infrastructures" has been granted. The site in question is next to Beit Romano, one of the settler enclaves inside Hebron.
While the Palestinians oppose all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, construction in Hebron, the West Bank's largest city, is viewsed as especially contentious. About 1,000 Jewish settlers live in heavily fortified enclaves in the city, surrounded by some 200,000 Palestinians. The city is holy to both Jews and Muslims. There is frequent friction between the sides, and the city has been a flashpoint of violence during the last year of fighting.
Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, welcomed expanding the settlement, saying it "would be good news for the Jewish community here." Conversely, Kamel Hmeid, the Palestinian governor of Hebron, called it "one of the most dangerous decisions" by Israel. "What is happening is a cooperation and collusion between the government and the settlers," he added.
In response to the announced future development, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing Israel of trying to make Hebron "more Jewish." It vowed to turn to the Israeli Supreme Court, United Nations and international courts to stop the plan. "We stress the need for immediate action to prevent the implementation of this new settlement plan," the ministry said.
Hagit Ofran of the Israeli organization Peace Now said it was the first approval in the area in more than a decade. She accused Israel of using "legal acrobatics" of allocating the land to settlers, instead of turning it over to the Palestinian-run municipality.
The Israeli steps come at a time of deadlock in international peace efforts, though a number of parties, including the US, France and European Union, have attempted to restart negotiations. On Monday, both Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and Palestinian officials said that Russia has also offered to host peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. However, gaps between the sides are so vast that talks appear unlikely anytime soon.
Despite the deadlock, a new Israeli-Palestinian poll released Monday showed that a narrow majority on both sides does favors a peace settlement that would establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Specifically, the poll found that 51% of Palestinians and 59% of Israelis still support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.