An Israeli defence official said a planning forum of Israel’s liaison office with the Palestinians gave preliminary approval for plans to build 1,344 housing units and its final go-ahead for projects to construct 1,800 homes, the Reuters news agency reported on Thursday.
The Israeli NGO Peace Now also confirmed the approvals.
The approvals come in defiance of the strongest criticism by US President Joe Biden’s administration to date of such projects.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas called on the international community to take a “decisive stance” on the Israeli decision.
Al Jazeera’s Nida Ibrahim, reporting from Nablus, said: “While the number of units approved in Wednesday’s meeting might not be as large as during the era of US President Donald Trump, for Palestinians one settlement unit is one unit too much.”
The decision marked the latest boost for Israel’s 50-year-old settlement enterprise on occupied lands the Palestinians seek for a state.
Settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are regarded as illegal under international law and by much of the international community, but successive Israeli governments have expanded them, making an internationally-backed two-state solution – a state of Palestine alongside Israel – increasingly impossible.
Hazem Qassem, a spokesperson for Hamas, the group that runs the besieged Gaza Strip, told Al Jazeera the “approval affirms the expansionist behaviour of settlements which is inherent in all Zionist governments”.
“We call on the Palestinian Authority and all international parties to take action and stop Israeli occupation from the illegal settlement expansion in our lands.
Abbas said the decision amounted to a “message of disdain for the efforts of the US administration”.
The Trump administration had tolerated settlement growth and abandoned the decades-long US position that the settlements were illegitimate.
Israel embarked on an aggressive settlement spree during the Trump years, advancing plans for more than 12,000 settler homes in 2020 alone, according to Peace Now, the highest number since it started collecting data in 2012.
Wednesday’s decision was likely to raise friction with European powers and the US.
On Thursday, Germany, and 11 other European countries, urged Israel to reverse course.
In a joint statement by the foreign ministries of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain and Sweden, the countries said they opposed settlement expansion across the occupied Palestinian Territories.
“We call on both parties to build on steps taken in recent months to improve cooperation and reduce tensions,” the countries said.
The statement by European powers came after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had protested against the plan on Tuesday during a phone call with Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, according to a senior US official who was not authorised to speak publicly.
Also on Tuesday, the US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about Israel’s plans to advance new settlement homes, including many deep inside the West Bank.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington: “We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm and damages the prospects for a two-state solution.”
Sabri Saidam, a former Palestinian official, criticised the Biden administration, saying it was “almost absent” as Israel pushes ahead with settlement construction.
‘Not a government of change’
The settlement approval also seemed poised to test Israel’s fragile governing coalition of ultra-nationalists, centrists and dovish parties that oppose settlements after the 12-year rule of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Now, everybody knows that this is not a government of change, but this is a government with the same policy as Netanyahu to build more settlements, to deepen the occupation and to take us away from the chances for peace,” said Hagit Ofran, of Peace Now.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and occupied East Jerusalem – areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war – for their future state. The Palestinians view the settlements, which house about 700,000 Israelis, as the main obstacle to peace.
Israel views the West Bank, home to more than 2.5 million Palestinians, as the biblical and historical heartland of the Jewish people.
Wednesday’s approvals were given by the defence ministry’s higher planning council, which authorises West Bank construction.
The committee was also supposed to approve 1,300 housing units for Palestinians who live in areas of the West Bank that are under full Israeli control, outside the enclaves administered by the PA. The discussion was moved to next week.
The Palestinians and rights groups say the 1,300 homes under discussion meet a tiny fraction of the need.
Palestinians require military permits to build in the 60 percent of the occupied West Bank that is under full Israeli control.
Rights groups say permits are almost never granted, forcing many residents to build without authorisation and risk demolition.
On Sunday, Israel announced construction tenders for 1,355 housing units in the West Bank, the first move of its kind since Biden assumed office pledging to take a harder line on the settlements.
It also appeared to run contrary to the new Israeli coalition government’s own pledges to reduce tensions with the Palestinians.
Additional reporting by Maram Humain in Gaza