JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has appropriated large tracts of land in the occupied West Bank near the Dead Sea and the Palestinian city of Jericho, Israeli Army Radio said on Tuesday.
Israel’s Peace Now movement, which tracks and opposes Israeli settlement in territory captured in a 1967 war, said the reported seizure of 579 acres (234 hectares) represented the largest land confiscation in the West Bank in recent years.
The group said plans for expanding nearby Jewish settlements and building tourism and other commercial facilities in the area were already on Israel’s drawing board.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, in a statement, called on the international community to press Israel to stop land confiscations. Most countries view Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal and an obstacle to peace.
The U.S. State Department criticized the land seizure, saying ongoing expropriations and settlement expansions were “fundamentally undermining the prospects for a two-state solution.”
“We strongly oppose any steps that accelerate settlement expansion, which raises serious questions about Israel’s long-term intentions,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told a news briefing.
Asked about Army Radio’s report of the land confiscation, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon’s office said in an email to Reuters: “We are not relating to the issue.”
Photos of a de facto Israeli confiscation notice - a Hebrew map and accompanying documents titled “A declaration of government property” - were tweeted, however, by the Palestine Liberation Organization on Tuesday.
Dated March 10, it listed 2,342 dunams, or 579 acres, and carried the signature of an official identified on the map as Israel’s “supervisor of government property and abandoned property in Judea and Samaria”, Hebrew terms for the West Bank.
Such an appropriation would be the largest since August 2014, and larger than the 380 acre (154 hectares) area that Israel first said in January it planned to designate as government property near the Dead Sea. News of those plans drew international condemnation at the time.
Israel says it intends to keep large settlement blocs in any future peace agreement with the Palestinians. Palestinians, who seek to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, say they fear Israeli settlement expansion will deny them a viable country.
Palestinians have cited Israeli settlement activity as one of the factors behind the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks in 2014, and a surge of violence over the past five months has dimmed hopes negotiations could be revived any time soon.
Since October, Palestinian street attacks have killed 28 Israelis and two U.S. citizens. Israeli forces have killed at least 184 Palestinians, 124 of whom Israel says were assailants. Most others were shot dead during violent protests.
Additional reporting by Ori Lewis and Ali Sawafta, Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Hugh Lawson and Chizu Nomiyama