"On the instructions of the political echelon... 4,000 dunams at Gevaot (settlement) is declared as state land," the Israeli army's civil affairs department said on Sunday. According to a government spokesman in Tel Aviv, the Palestinian owners of the land have 45 days to contest the decision to Israel's Military Appeals Committee.
Israeli advocacy group Peace Now said on Sunday the seizure of Palestinian land by Israel was the biggest in three decades and is likely to threaten a two-state solution to the conflict. The group also said Israel was likely to use the land, located in the outpost of Gevaot near Bethlehem, to expand housing units in a nearby settlement.
The announcement comes days after Israeli government and Palestinian militants agreed to a ceasefire, ending nearly two months of fighting in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military said the political leadership made the decision after the killing of three Israeli teenagers abducted in the same area in June. Israel has named three Palestinians from the southern West Bank city of Hebron as the murderers of the youths.
The settlements council in Gevaot, which consists of only 10 families, welcomed the expropriate plans.
"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 new construction at the site has been on the Israeli government's agenda since 2000, says the Haaretz newspaper. According to the Israeli daily, the government invited bids for the building of 1,000 new homes in Gevaot last year.
Angry reaction from Palestinians
In reaction to Sunday's announcement, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called for a diplomatic action against Israel.
"The Israeli government is committing various crimes against the Palestinian people and their occupied land," Erakat told the AFP news agency. "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," he added.
Senior Palestine Liberation official Hanan Ashrawi also denounced Israel's latest expropriation plans. "Today's announcement clearly represents Israel's deliberate intent to wipe out any Palestinian presence on the land and to willfully impose a de facto one-state solution," he said.
The European Union and the United States oppose Israel's West Bank settlement policy as illegal and an obstacle to peace.
shs/hc (AFP, dpa)