Israel says no plan for new settlements in West Bank area evacuated in 2005

Israel repeals law that banned four West Bank settlements
Israeli activists carry a tent in the abandoned Jewish settlement of Homesh, in the northern West Bank, March 27, 2007. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (WEST BANK)/File Photo

JERUSALEM, March 22 (Reuters) - Israel tried on Wednesday to calm international concern over its amending of a law that had ordered the 2005 evacuation of settlers from an area of the occupied West Bank, saying it had no intention of building new settlements there.

Tuesday's repeal in parliament of elements of the "disengagement law" would allow Israelis to return to the four evacuated settlements in the northern West Bank, on condition of Israeli military approval.

The move drew protests from the Palestinians, who want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, as well as from Western powers that have been closely watching the impact on a moribund peace process of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-right coalition government.

Netanyahu's office said in a statement that the Knesset vote "at long last put an end to the discriminatory and humiliating law that forbade Jews from living in areas of northern Samaria, which is part of its historic homeland".

"With that said, the government has no intention of establishing new communities in these areas."

Samaria is the historic biblical name for the area.

It was not clear if previously evacuated settlments were covered by the pledge.

Most countries deem the settlements, built on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as illegal. Their presence is one of the fundamental issues in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Palestinian Authority's foreign ministry condemned Netanyahu's statement on the disengagement law.

The ministry said Netanyahu's words "serves as further evidence of his colonial, racist and expansionist mentality".

It said his statement was directly connected to comments by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who at the weekend denied the existence of the Palestinian people.

"Netanyahu's position is an official recognition of the occupied West Bank's annexation and the practice of the ugliest forms of apartheid against the Palestinian people and disregards the reactions of the United States and the international community," the Palestinian statement said.

Israel strongly rejects any suggestion it maintains an apartheid system.

The repeal of the disengagement law takes place against a background of increased confrontation in the West Bank in the past several months, with near-daily military raids and escalating settler violence amid a spate of attacks by Palestinians.

Israel's hard-right government, which took power in December last year, is set on expanding West Bank settlements and includes members who rule out a Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip, another Palestinian territory, is ruled by Hamas, which spurns coexistence with Israel.

The United States, Israel's principle ally, was "extremely troubled" by the latest move, State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said on Tuesday.

Patel said the amendment was "particularly provocative and counterproductive" to efforts to restore calm in Israel and the West Bank ahead of the Ramadan, Passover and Easter holidays.

The head of the Shomron Regional Council, a body responsible for a block of settlements in the West Bank, Yossi Dagan responded on Wednesday that the U.S. Secretary of State should "shove his nose in his own business".

Yossi Dagan said that while the United States was a close and important friend of Israel "when it comes to the reality in the settlement areas, the U.S. administration severely misunderstands".

Over the past year, Israeli forces have made thousands of arrests in the West Bank and killed more than 200 Palestinians, including fighters and civilians. More than 40 Israelis and three Ukrainians have died in Palestinian attacks in the same period.

Writing by Dan Williams, Ali Sawafta, Emily Rose; Editing by Toby Chopra, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Angus MacSwan

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