WASHINGTON — The State Department voiced concern over Israel’s latest move to advance housing units in settlements across the West Bank at a time of surging violence in the occupied territory. 

On Monday, the Israeli Defense Ministry planning committee that handles settlement building approved more than 5,000 new housing units, including at the Eli settlement, near where four Israelis were killed by Palestinian gunmen last week.  

“We are deeply troubled by the Israeli government’s reported decision to advance planning for over 4,000 settlements in the West Bank," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Monday. 

"We believe that settlements are an impediment to a negotiated two-state solution along 1967 lines, which ultimately we believe is the best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Miller said. “Our opinions about this are quite clear, and we will continue to make it known.”

The United States has repeatedly called on Israel to halt its settlement construction on land claimed by the Palestinians, which it says undermines prospects for a two-state solution to the long-running conflict. Miller also criticized the Israeli Cabinet’s recent decision to expedite the process of approving new settlements. 

More than 700,000 Israelis live in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Most countries, as well as the Palestinians, consider the settlements a violation of international law.

Peace Now, an Israel-based advocacy group opposed to settlements, said Monday that 2023 is the highest year on record for approvals of new housing units. 

“The approval of nearly 5,700 housing units today and over 13,000 in the first half of this year alone should make it clear that the government is rushing headlong toward an annexation coup,” the group said in a statement. 

The planned settlement expansion comes amid a surge of violence in the West Bank. On Wednesday, a pair of Palestinian gunmen fatally shot four Israelis outside the Eli settlement. That same day, some 400 armed Jewish settlers torched cars, homes and orchards in the West Bank town of Turmus Aya in an apparent reprisal for the shootings.  

The government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — Israel’s most right-wing and religious in its history — took office in December and includes ultranationalist members who have advocated for a major expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and changing the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites.  

President Joe Biden has yet to invite Netanyahu to the White House, as is customary following an Israeli election. In a further snub, two of the coalition's most right-wing members — National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — were reportedly kept off the invite list for a US Independence Day reception hosted by the US Embassy in Israel next week.  

In another sign of friction between the two countries, the Biden administration recently notified Congress that it would restore a ban on American taxpayer funds being used for science and technology projects carried out in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The Trump administration lifted the decades-old ban in 2020 in a move that drew condemnation from the Palestinians.  

Left-leaning Jewish group J Street welcomed the Biden administration's restoration of the ban and encouraged it to reverse the prior administration’s customs guidance that said West Bank exports should be labeled “Made in Israel.” 

“All those who support a two-state solution to secure Israel’s democratic future must do everything possible to uphold the distinction between the State of Israel and settlements in occupied territory beyond the Green Line,” J Street said in a statement. 

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf recently concluded a trip to Israel aimed partly at deepening the Jewish state's relations with its Arab neighbors. Many of the holdouts to the Abraham Accords, including regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, say they need to see progress on a two-state solution before agreeing to normalize ties with Israel. 

Abraham Accords signatory Morocco said Friday it was again postponing a meeting of senior officials from Israel, the United States and several Arab countries until after the summer, citing increased settlement activity and the heightened West Bank violence. 

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