Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday approved the “immediate” construction of 300 settler homes in the occupied West Bank as his government came under pressure from right-wing Jewish groups.
Settlements in the West Bank are viewed as major impediments to peace negotiations with Palestinians, who see the land as part of a future independent state, and Western nations have called on Israel to halt such projects.
The decision comes amid already strained relations between Israel and the United States, particularly over the recent nuclear deal with Iran, but Netanyahu is also under pressure to hold together his one-seat majority in parliament.
Palestinian officials had not immediately reacted to the announcement, but they have previously strongly condemned such moves.
“After consultations in the prime minister’s office, the immediate construction of 300 homes in Beit El has been authorised,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said, adding that planning for another 504 homes in annexed East Jerusalem had also been approved.
According to the statement, the 300 units in the West Bank had been promised three years ago following the demolition of other homes in the Beit El settlement.
The approval came after the Israeli High Court earlier Wednesday upheld a demolition order for two structures being built illegally in Beit El. The planned demolition had drawn protests from settler groups who clashed with police at the site on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Netanyahu had said he opposed the demolition of the housing units under construction, which began on Wednesday.
Right-wing members of his government also spoke out strongly against the demolition, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett addressed protesters at the site.
On Wednesday, he immediately hailed the decision on new construction announced by Netanyahu’s office.
“This decision is a Zionist response,” Bennett, of the right-wing Jewish Home party, said in a statement. “This is the way in which we will build our country.”
The prime minister holds only a one-seat majority in parliament following March elections and settler groups wield significant influence in his government.
Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are considered illegal under international law, though not by the Israeli government.
They are seen as further complicating peace negotiations aimed at leading to an independent Palestinian state. Talks have been stalled since last year.
The two buildings being demolished in Beit El were reportedly on private Palestinian land that was seized by the army in the 1970s.
Several hundred protesters clashed with police on Tuesday as authorities took control of the buildings, then again on Wednesday as demolition started.
Police used water cannon to push back protesters and detained a number of people, an AFP photographer reported.
In a separate incident on Tuesday, several hundred people illegally entered the former Sa-Nur settlement in the northern West Bank. Israel had evacuated the settlement in 2005.
Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War and nearly 400,000 Jewish settlers currently live there.