US condemns Israel expanding boundary of settlement bloc in the West Bank

A Palestinian shepherd walks his flock, backdropped by the Jewish settlement of Nigdal Oz, one of the settlements of the Gush Etzion block of settlements, in the southern West Bank. AP Photo/Oded Balilty

JERUSALEM – The U.S. State Department on Friday condemned Israel’s decision to expand the boundary of an existing West Bank settlement bloc, saying it hinders attempts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Israel’s defence ministry in late December added a compound in the West Bank to the jurisdiction of the Gush Etzion regional council, near Jerusalem.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Friday that “continued settlement activity and expansion raises honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions and will only make achieving a two state solution much more difficult.” He added that the United States remains “deeply concerned” about the move, “which effectively creates a new settlement on 10 acres in the West Bank.”

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The Palestinians claim the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem, as parts of their future state. They consider all Israeli construction there to be illegal – a position that is backed by the international community. Israel says settlements along with other core issues like security should be agreed upon in peace talks.

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Negotiations collapsed in 2014, in part over the issue of settlements.

The compound at Gush Etzion is located south of a junction that has been scene to multiple attacks by Palestinians against civilians and soldiers over the past three and a half months.

Hagit Ofran of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said a settler group bought the compound legally from a church in Sweden. She said it was not clear when people would move in.

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“Now the compound is part of the municipality, so it is official,” she said, adding that since it no does not belong to any specific existing settlement, her group is calling it “a new settlement.”

The move came amid near-daily Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers that killed 21 people mostly in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming assaults. At least 134 Palestinians died by Israeli fire, including 93 said by Israel to be attackers. The rest were killed in clashes with troops.

Israel says the bloodshed is fueled by a Palestinian campaign of incitement. Palestinians say it stems from frustration over lack of hope in obtaining statehood.

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