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US slams legalization of 3 West Bank outposts ‘previously illegal under Israeli law’

The US State Department condemned Israel on Thursday for moving forward with the legalization of three wildcat outposts located deep in the West Bank.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — who also is a junior minister within the Defense Ministry in charge of settlement affairs — announced the move on Wednesday, saying that the IDF’s Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox had signed off on orders designating for the municipal boundaries of Avigayil, Asahel and Beit Hoglah.

This appears to be the first time in over a decade that Israel is legalizing outposts that will serve as independent settlements, rather than neighborhoods of existing settlements.

While the international community considers all settlements illegal, Israel differentiates between settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land.

The three outposts were from a list of nine that the government announced in February that it would legalize in response to a deadly terror attack amid pressure from the coalition’s many far-right, pro-settler elements.

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The Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body overseen by Smotrich — drew up the municipal boundaries for the outposts, which were signed by Fox. A masterplan designating the towns for residential construction next must to be authorized by the Civil Administration’s Higher Planning Committee so that the existing illegally built structures can be retroactively approved and new buildings can be constructed. That process could still take several months.

Religious Zionism party chief Betzalel Smotrich (center) and party members at the settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The moves by Smotrich come as the Biden administration is working to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which Washington is expecting will require significant moves by Jerusalem that will advance a two-state solution. One of the gestures presented would be Israel transferring West Bank territory to the Palestinian Authority’s control — something that Smotrich and other far-right lawmakers are likely to oppose.

In response to a query on the outpost legalizations, a State Department spokesperson told The Times of Israel, “Our views have been clear and consistent: The expansion of settlements or outposts undermines the geographic viability of a two-state solution, exacerbates tensions, and further harms trust between Israelis and Palestinians.”

“We strongly oppose the advancement of settlements and the retroactive legalization of settlements that were previously illegal under Israeli law and urge Israel to refrain from this activity,” the statement from the spokesperson continued. “The United States is committed to achieving a comprehensive and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. We continue to believe that all parties should focus on actions that bring us closer to peace and to negotiations on the two-state solution.”

The statement appeared largely identical to previous ones issued by the Biden administration in response to Israeli approvals for more settlement construction in the West Bank. During its first six months in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has approved more building in the West Bank than what any previous government has green-lit in an entire calendar year, drawing Washington’s ire.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report