BAYT AWWA: Hanan, the mother of 18-year-old Badawee Masalma, shows a picture of him on her phone during his funeral in this West Bank village southwest of Hebron yesterday. - AFP

JERUSALEM: Israel's defense minister announced plans to build a new Jewish-only settlement in the heart of a flashpoint West Bank city yesterday, weeks after the United States said it no longer considered such communities illegal. The move in Hebron in the southern West Bank sparked Palestinian anger and accusations that US President Donald Trump effectively green-lighted the move.

Rightwing Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said the new development would double the Jewish population in the city, where around 800 settlers live guarded by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, surrounded by some 200,000 Palestinians. Hebron is holy to both Muslims and Jews and sees frequent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces.

The defense ministry said Bennett had instructed departments responsible for the Israeli-occupied West Bank "to notify the Hebron municipality of planning a new Jewish neighborhood in the wholesale market complex". The market area is on Hebron's once-bustling Shuhada Street, which leads to a holy site where the biblical Abraham and his wife Sarah are believed to be buried. The street is now largely closed off to Palestinians, who have long demanded that it be reopened.

A statement from a settlers' organisation in Hebron hailed Bennett's decision to "bring Jewish life back to Jewish property in Hebron", labelling it a "historic act of justice" for the Jewish people. Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the new project was a result of the US' Nov 18th decision to no longer consider Israeli settlements illegal. That move broke with decades of international consensus that settlements are seen as illegal under international law and a major obstacle to peace, as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.
The Bennett plan, Erekat wrote in English on Twitter, "is the first tangible result of the US decision to legitimize colonization". Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now condemned the addition to what it called the "ugliest face of Israel's control in the occupied territories". "In order to maintain the presence of 800 settlers among a quarter of a million Palestinians, entire streets in Hebron are closed to Palestinians, denying them freedom of movement," it said in a statement.
Israel seized the West Bank including Hebron, one of the world's oldest cities, in 1967 in a move never recognized by the international community. In the following years, a small community of Jewish settlers moved into the area next to the site believed by both Jews and Muslims to house Abraham's tomb. Israel's West Bank settlements are considered illegal under international law and are bitterly opposed by Palestinians.

Bennett's move comes amid political turmoil in Israel after general elections in April and September ended in deadlock. Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and allies like Bennett, nor their opponents, won enough parliamentary seats to form a viable coalition. Lawmakers now have until Dec 11 to find a solution or see parliament dissolved once again for a third election in 12 months.

Bennett's New Right party draws much of its support from the more than 600,000 Israeli settlers living in the Palestinian territories. At yesterday's weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu also offered good news for the settlers, pledging 40 million shekels ($11.5 million) for improved security. "We are strengthening the security components in the communities in Judea and Samaria, of the Israeli citizens there," he said, using the biblical terms for the West Bank.
In September Netanyahu visited the settlement in Hebron for the first time since becoming Israeli leader in 2009. The Palestinians condemned the visit as deliberately provocative, but Netanyahu defended it - saying the city was historically important for Jews. "We're not strangers in Hebron. We'll stay in it forever," he said.

In 1994, Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron with an assault rifle before being beaten to death by survivors. Villages close to Hebron are also regularly the scene of unrest. On Saturday, Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian southwest of the city. The army said he was one of three men throwing petrol bombs at a military vehicle. - AFP