JERUSALEM - Israel has declared 234 hectares of West Bank territory as state land, officials said Tuesday, leading a watchdog to warn of possible settlement expansion that could increase tensions with Palestinians.
COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry body responsible for implementing government policies in the Palestinian territories, said the move was taken "in accordance with the decision of the political level".
It gave no further explanation but settlement watchdog Peace Now said the land involved is south of the Palestinian city of Jericho and close to the Dead Sea. Peace Now said the land -- equivalent in size to more than 250 international football pitches -- is the biggest reclassification since a seizure of 400 hectares in 2014.
The NGO said the order to seize the land was signed on March 10 as US Vice President Joe Biden wrapped up a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, though COGAT refused to comment on the timing. Palestinians who claim ownership of the land can appeal the decision within 45 days.
Peace Now said the land could help link up and potentially expand local Jewish settlements. "This declaration is a de-facto confiscation of Palestinian lands for the purpose of settlement," a statement said. "Instead of trying to calm the situation, the government is adding fuel to the fire." The confiscation comes amid a wave of violence that has seen 194 Palestinians, 28 Israelis, two Americans, an Eritrean and a Sudanese killed since October 1, according to an AFP count.
Most of the Palestinians were killed while carrying out knife, gun or car-ramming attacks, according to the Israeli authorities. Palestinian leaders, including president Mahmud Abbas, have in part blamed the expansion of settlements for the violence. In 2010, Israel unveiled plans to build 1,600 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem during a previous Biden visit. Weeks later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a visit to the White House, was denied the privileges customarily granted to foreign dignitaries, even the ritual handshake photograph.
Moreover, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Israel on Tuesday to reverse its confiscation of land in the Palestinian West Bank, describing the decision as "an impediment to the two-state solution" in the Middle East.
The appeal came after Israel declared 234 hectares of West Bank territory to be state land, fueling concerns of a new spike in tensions with the Palestinians. "Such actions appear to point toward an increase in settlement activities and demonstrate that Israel is continuing to push forward in the consolidation of its control of the West Bank," said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
"Settlements are illegal under international law and the secretary-general urges the government of Israel to halt and reverse such actions in the interest of a just and comprehensive peace and a just final status agreement," he said. The United Nations has repeatedly called on Israel to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements, which it views as an attempt to scuttle plans for a future Palestinian state by absorbing land that would be part of the new country.
Earlier this month, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, Robert Piper, said Israel was razing Palestinian homes at an "alarming" rate in the West Bank. Peace Now, an organization that monitors settlements, said the order to seize the land was signed on March 10 as US Vice President Joe Biden wrapped up a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Peace Now said the land could help link up and potentially expand local Jewish settlements. "This declaration is a de-facto confiscation of Palestinian lands for the purpose of settlement," it said in a statement. "Instead of trying to calm the situation, the government is adding fuel to the fire."
There has been a wave of violence including a shooting attack and a car-ramming on Israelis in the West Bank this week. The three Palestinians who carried out the attacks on Monday were shot dead by Israeli soldiers.