Israel confirmed its plans to appropriate a large tract of fertile land in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, in a move which is likely to exacerbate tensions with Western allies and is already drawing international condemnation.
In an email sent to Reuters, COGAT, a unit of Israel's Defense Ministry, said the political decision to seize the territory has been taken and "the lands are in the final stages of being declared state lands."
The appropriation 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. It is the largest land seizure since August 2014.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denounced the move and Palestinian officials said they would push for a resolution at the United Nations against Israel's settlement policies. "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, in an area fully under Israeli civilian and military control and already used by Jewish settlers to farm dates, is situated near the northern tip of the Dead Sea. Palestinian officials denounced the seizure.
"Israel is stealing land; especially in the Jordan Valley, under the pretext that it wants to annex it," Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, 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 the U.S. strongly opposes any moves that accelerate settlement expansion.
In a development likely to further upset Europe, Israeli forces demolished six structures in the West Bank funded by the EU's humanitarian arm. The structures were dwellings and latrines for Bedouins living in an area known as E1 – a particularly sensitive zone between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Israel has not built settlements in E1, with construction considered a "red line" by the U.S. and the EU.
Israeli officials 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.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East War. It later annexed the holy city in 1980, claiming it as the capital of the self-proclaimed Jewish state – a move never recognized by the international community. Palestinians, for their part, continue to demand the establishment of an independent state on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with East Jerusalem – currently occupied by Israel – as its capital.
There are now about 550,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem combined, according to Israeli government and think-tank statistics. About 350,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem and 2.7 million in the West Bank.