Israeli authorities on Sunday advanced plans to build an additional 780 homes in West Bank settlements, the anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now said.
The approvals are widely seen as taking advantage of the last few days of US President Donald Trump's administration. Trump broke with decades of US diplomacy by unilaterally declaring that the settlements no longer breach international law.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the planned construction earlier this week. On Sunday, a government committee gave final ratification for 365 homes and preliminary approval for another 415.
Peace Now said that over 90% of the homes lay deep inside the West Bank, which the Palestinians seek as the heartland of a future independent state.
More than 200 homes were located in unauthorized outposts that the government had decided to legalize.
Why is Israel building in the West Bank?
Israel has stepped up settlement construction during Trump's term, with approval or plans made for over 12,000 homes in 2020.
Despite the US U-turn in 2019. all Jewish settlements in the West Bank are still regarded as illegal by much of the international community, and an obstacle to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to return the United States to the traditional position of opposing settlements, setting the stage for a possible clash with Netanyahu.
"Not only will this settlement activity erode the possibility for a conflict-ending resolution with the Palestinians in the long-term, but in the short-term, it needlessly sets Israel on a collision course with the incoming Biden administration," Peace Now warned.
How big is Israel's West Bank expansion?
Israel approved plans for over 27,000 settler homes during Trump's four-year term, more than 2.5 times the number approved during the Obama administration's second term, according to Peace Now.
Following years of settlement expansion, there currently some 450,000 Jews living in the West Bank amid an estimated 2.8 million Palestinians.
Beyond the change in Washington, experts said Israel's upcoming election on March 23 has prompted Netanyahu to push for settlement expansion.
The prime minister is expected to face a fierce right-wing challenge from Gideon Saar, a defector from Netanyahu's Likud party.
What's the Palestinian reaction?
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, as part of a future independent state.
They say the growing settler population makes it increasingly difficult to achieve their dream of independence.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the construction as illegal, accusing Israel of making a "pre-emptive attempt ... to undermine any effort by (incoming) US President Joe Biden to relaunch the stalled peace process."
In a statement, the European Union said Israel's latest decision "is contrary to international law and further undermines the prospects of a viable two-state solution."
mm/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)