The Israeli Security Cabinet on Thursday approved the construction of the first new Jewish settlement in the West Bank in 20 years, setting the stage for a confrontation with the Palestinians who bitterly oppose the project and claim the land as their own.
The move — which still needs approval from the entire Cabinet — came despite a request from President Donald Trump in February to put the brakes on any new settler developments.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been under pressure at home by hard-line settlers and their backers to relocate some 30 families who had been forcibly evicted from the Amona settlement in the West Bank after the Israeli high court ruled it was illegal.
Netanyahu's announcement Thursday was terse and straight to the point: "The Political-Security Cabinet unanimously approved this evening the establishment of a new settlement for the evacuees of Amona, in the Shilo Valley region."
While more than 600,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Israel has not built a full-fledged new settlement since the 1990s. Instead, building during that period has expanded existing settlements or taken place in unauthorized outposts like Amona. Netanyahu's hard-line government, which is dominated by settler allies, recently passed legislation aimed at legalizing dozens of those outposts.
The Palestinians and much of the international community consider the settlements obstacles to peace because they occupy up territory where the Palestinians seek to establish a future state. Israel says the status of settlements as well as other issues, such as security, should be resolved in peace talks.
A leading settler organization welcomed the decision, but warned that it would watch the government carefully to see what came next.
"The true test will be the implementation of these plans and their manifestation as actual bricks and mortar on the ground," said Oded Revivi of the Yesha Council. "We will be monitoring the government very closely to see that these plans come to fruition, enabling a new era of building throughout our ancestral homeland."
Palestinian Liberation Organization committee member Hanan Ashrawi, meanwhile, immediately condemned the decision.
“Today’s announcement once again proves that Israel is more committed to appeasing its illegal settler population than to abiding by the requirements for stability and a just peace," she said.
Israeli opposition groups like Peace Now also chimed-in with condemnation.
"Netanyahu is held captive by the settlers, and chooses his political survival over the interest of the state of Israel," the group said. "By giving in to settler pressure, Netanyahu is leading Israelis and Palestinians to a reality of one state and apartheid."
In an email to NBC News, United Nations Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq "reiterated the U.N.'s long-standing position that settlements are unhelpful to the peace process."
There was no immediate response from the White House.
By last week, the proposed new settlement was on the agenda when Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, met with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, The Washington Post reported.
Some 330 right-wing Israeli settlers lived in Amona, which was the largest of the outposts built in the West Bank without official authorization.
After a lengthy legal battle, the Israeli court ordered the settlers to leave Amona because their homes were built on privately owned Palestinian land. And when Israeli security forces arrived, they were met with violence.